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BMCR 2017.05.

25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.25

Anders Dahl Srensen, Plato on Democracy and Political 'techn'.

Philosophia antiqua, 143. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. viii,
196. ISBN 9789004312005. $132.00.

Reviewed by Carol Atack, University of Oxford (


In this thoughtful exploration of Platos thought on democracy and knowledge, Anders

Dahl Srensen establishes a nuanced account of Platos political assessment of democracy,
concluding that the question of democracys epistemic potential was a question Plato took
seriously (p. 167). Anyone with an interest in Platos thought and ancient politics will find
new insights in Srensens careful analysis, the connections he makes between Platos
epistemology and political thought, and the insights into Athenian politics he draws from
close readings of Platos dialogues. He draws on recent models of epistemic democracy
developed by political theorists, in which citizens deliberation and decision-making are
held to generate (for example) better or more accurate decisions through their intellectual,
experiential and cultural diversity, or through an averaging effect achieved by aggregating
their individual contributions. 1 This enables a subtle reconsideration of Platos
perspectives on democracy, although Srensen refrains from comparative analysis till he
reaches his closing Epilogue.

Assessments of Platos political views have softened since the time when Karl Popper and
Richard Crossman argued that his political thought and the ideal society he envisaged
anchored an intellectual genealogy that culminated in totalitarianism. 2 Since then, scholars
such as Sara Monoson have pointed to the importance of speech and deliberation within
the Platonic dialogue, and the significance of its democratic context, and sought to align
Platos thought with models of deliberative democracy. 3 Such lines of argument have
occasionally required deft footwork from their proponents, as with Arlene Saxonhouses
esotericist re-reading of the Protagoras in which Socrates, rather than Protagoras, speaks
for democracy. 4 Srensens model offers a balanced reading in which Plato can be seen
to engage with his political context, consider the epistemic potential of democracy, and
acknowledge some limited circumstances in which a democracy could deliver an effective
imitation of an ideal regime.

Treating Platos political thought through the framework of epistemic democracy also
draws together aspects of Platos thought too often treated separately. Srensen
reconnects politics and epistemology in the arguments of the Theaetetus (Chapter 5) and
the Republic (Chapter 1); the same connection is also emphasised in the other dialogues he
explores, the Protagoras (Chapter 4), the Gorgias (Chapter 2), and the Statesman
(Chapter 3).

Srensen asks a careful and telling question of his Platonic material; does Plato think that
there can be a democratic form of political skill (techn), so that democracy can be shown
to have a foundation in knowledge? On the face of it, Plato is supremely hostile towards
the idea that democratic political activity could constitute a techn. Aristotles wisdom of
the multitude argument (Politics 3.11, 1281a42-b21) is more usually invoked as an
ancient argument for the epistemic potential of democracy (and briefly considered here, pp.
167-9), but Srensens contention is that Platos dialogues, especially later works such as
the Statesman, credit democracy with some degree of epistemic potential, in its ability to
institute practices that use law to imitate the operation of an ideal lawgiver equipped with
knowledge. That might not seem an obvious development from the Republic, where
Socrates distinguishes attempts to tame the beast of democratic rule from skill (techn) or
wisdom (sophia, 493b5-7), but Srensen suggests that the underwhelming discussion of
Thrasymachus account of justice leaves a gap in which an account of democracys
epistemic potential could be positioned. Thrasymachus himself credits democratic rulers
with political skill (Republic 1, 338d5-6, 338e2), as does the pseudo-Xenophontic
Constitution of the Athenians (pp. 28-30), which Srensen treats as a fifth-century text
and so possibly contemporary with the historical Thrasymachus. But Plato does not pursue
these approaches, which Srensens contextualism identifies as the product of late fifth-
century Athenian practice, as the dialogue turns towards the ethical and the individual.

In other dialogues, however, Plato tackles the question of democracy and political skill
head-on. The Gorgias, as Srensen notes, the most uncompromisingly antidemocratic of
Platos works (p. 35), examines the political practice of speakers and their educators and
finds them wanting. Socrates here argues that the activities that make up participation in
democratic politics as a citizen and an orator are unscientific, in aiming at pleasure rather
than benefit and in lacking a methodology beyond the guesswork he criticises. Here
Srensens analysis of democracy builds on Josiah Obers Mass and Elite model, in
which the political argument of elite speakers is constrained by the need to appeal to their
mass audience (p. 45). 5 The speakers must offer pleasure to the masses, as that is what
the masses want. It is the power of the dmos over the speaker that leads Plato to deny
the status of techn to rhetoric, because the masses value experience over knowledge.

A more positive account of democracys potential lies in the Statesman, where democratic
collective experience provides an epistemic foundation for an acceptable imitation of the
ideal regime (pp. 64-70). Srensen draws novel conclusions from his careful reading of the
dialogues later sections, showing how they analyse Athenian democratic practice. Indeed,
the dialogues political fable (Statesman 296d7-299e5) explores how a democratic city
might come to reject the idea of political expertise and claims to possess it. The fable
presents the most common examples of techn, medicine and sea-faring, and considers
how a polis might manage possessors of those skills whom the citizens thought to be using
them with hostile intent. Believing that the experts are using their skill to harm them, the
citizens set up an assembly in which they (though not necessarily all of them) can
themselves give their opinions on the proper exercise of these crafts, and even restrict by
law what can be identified as the techn. The citizens can then reject anyone whose
proposed work does not match their authorised model.

With this response, Srensen suggests, Plato shows how the idea of expertise comes to be
rejected within democratic political debate. Modifying previous analyses of this passage, he
argues that the citizens decide not on the allowable use of the craft but on what constitutes
the craft (pp. 73-4). Where Melissa Lane played down the connection between the city of
the fable and democratic Athens, Srensen suggests it represents the increased role of
established law in the restored democracy of fourth-century Athens, and specifically the
distinction between established law and decrees of the assembly. 6 Drawing on Mogens
Herman Hansens account of fourth-century political and legal practice in Athens, he shows
that the fable comments on practice contemporary with Plato (pp. 86-90). 7 Although the
reuse of craft imagery and language from the Republic might suggest a model of
democracy unchanged between the two works, here the imagined city resembles a later
version of Athens, that of the restored democracy with its legalistic proceduralism (whereas
that of the Protagoras displays a nostalgia for earlier fifth-century practice).

This part of the Statesman, Srensen suggests, is another instance of a Platonic second
sailing (pp. 70-1). The dialogue, unlike the Republic, is largely silent on how a politikos
might be produced; but it is concerned with how a city might manage without one.
Srensen argues that Plato resolves an ambiguity between the second-best regimes
acceptance of ancestral laws and their origin with a lawgiver (pp. 90-2), through the
incorporation of ancestral practice into the statesmans legislation, legislating by means of
ancestral customs (Statesman 295a7-8). The work of the politikos himself is made to
resemble that of originary lawgivers in ancestral constitution accounts; Srensen argues that
he codifies and puts into force the citys ancestral laws (p. 94). Thus the work of the
statesman and that of the second-best regime are aligned, so that it is possible to see how
the latter can imitate the former. This rather lukewarm claim, that a democracy based on
tried and tested ancestral practice can in some circumstances imitate the ideal regime, is the
closest to a positive claim that Srensen finds here for democracy.

But Plato does here seem to hint at a distinction between techn and epistm, and
although he does not always distinguish the terms clearly, the higher order of epistemic
activity of the politikos, as epistm or basilik techn, is different from that of his
citizens. Srensen does not explore the difficulties that Plato has in identifying the distinction
between the everyday technai of the craft analogy and the higher-level basilik techn (cf.
Euthydemus 288d-293a), nor any developmental concerns about changes in his model of
techn, both of which might further strengthen his reading of the Statesman. 8

Platos higher-order political skill rests on the knowledge which would be held by a
politikos in person or imitated in codified practice. But, as Srensen explores in his final
two chapters, the most significant opponent Plato provides for Socrates denies the claims
about knowledge that inform his critique of political practice. Protagorean relativism
provides a challenge to Socratic epistemology and therefore to any account of political skill
that depends upon it. While the measure doctrine is not foregrounded in the Protagoras,
Srensen follows Catherine Rowett in seeing the capacities of Protagorean citizens as
compatible with it. 9 Each community will develop a consensus of values and practices
drawn from the individual experiences of its citizens (p. 118); while each polis might
develop its own values, they are not arbitrary, as the Socratic take on the measure doctrine
suggests, but a truly collective achievement (p. 122).

Srensen suggests that the problems that his model creates for Protagoras status as an
expert are not fully explored in the Protagoras, but in the Theaetetus, which he reads as
continuing the political exploration of the measure doctrine. The political content of the
Theaetetus is often overlooked, despite the fiercely political content of the digression (at
172c-177c), which contrasts the philosopher with the practical citizen, and the dramatic
setting of the dialogue and its frame, which emphasise the civic activities of both Socrates
and the adult Theaetetus. Srensen reconnects the epistemological account of Protagorean
relativism that dominates the first part of the Theaetetus with the idea of political techn.
He argues that relativism is not a purely epistemological position for Plato, but one that
operates within a political context. By reading the Theaetetus self-refutation argument as
an argument against the theoretically most sophisticated case that could be made for the
reconciliation of democracy with political expertise, rather than as a purely abstract
exercise, Srensen shows that Socrates argument has political bite (p. 133).
Protagoras must surrender to the masses who dispute the measure doctrine, unable to
assert his conception of epistemic authority (p. 165).

There are some imperfections in the presentation of the material, including over-used
phrases (to be sure to anchor an assertion, pp. 30, 59, 62, 63, 67, 71), errors in Greek
accentuation, and the occasional omission of prepositions and other words (we may
wonder whether not, p. 4). But these minor issues do not detract from the overall
readability and usability of this book. This book represents an important contribution to the
study of Platos political thought and its relationship to its Athenian context, and its careful
readings of both Platos dialogues and previous scholarship provide helpful additions to
current debates.


1. Exemplified by D. M. Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework

(Princeton, 2008); H. Landemore, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective
Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many (Princeton, 2013).
2. K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato (5th
edn.; London, 1966); R. Crossman, RPlato Today (London, 1937).
3. S. S. Monoson, Plato's Democratic Entanglements: Athenian Politics and the
Practice of Philosophy (Princeton, 2000).
4. A. W. Saxonhouse, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens (Cambridge,
2006), 179-205.
5. J. Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power
of the People (Princeton, 1989).
6. M. S. Lane, Method and Politics in Platos Statesman (Cambridge, 1997).
7. M. H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure,
Principles, and Ideology (Oxford, 1991).
8. D. L. Roochnik, Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of Techne (University
Park, Pa, 1998), 1-15, discusses accounts of development change in Platos accounts of
9. C. Rowett, Relativism in Platos Protagoras in V. Harte and M. S. Lane (eds.),
Politeia in Greek and Roman Philosophy (Cambridge, 2013), 191-211.
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