Book Chapter

The Republic as a Metic Space

by Demetra Kasimis

In Plato's presentation of Athenian democracy in a metic frame, Athenian membership re-emerges as a question, not a given, for political life.

Part II: A Metic Republic in Three Acts

Chapter Three: The Republic as a Metic Space

… There is quite as much trouble in the reformation of an old constitution as in the establishment of a new one, just as to unlearn is as hard as to learn.

  —Aristotle, Politics 1289a3–4

Nowhere do we find figurations of metics with the prominence or historical specificity that we do in the Republic. Plato’s dialogue unfolds in Piraeus, the Athenian harbor synonymous with empire, merchants, travel, importation, and immigrant residence. [1] A metic entreats Socrates to stay and talk. His home furnishes the space for the examination, eschewal, and rethinking of the city’s membership lines. The site of the famous imaginary expedition to found a just city belongs to a family with no autochthonous claim to rule. 

In the grand scheme of the Republic’s argumentation, this setting is marginally visible. Yet as a dramatic conceit, it bears a crucial theoretical insight. If in Athens the autochthonous citizen is constituted by the metic’s exclusion, Plato’s dialogue enacts this logic of democratic difference. For the Republic presents the Athenian definition of the citizen against the metic by literally staging a conversation about membership in the house of one. It would seem that, without this figure, we could not grasp Athens in its entirety nor be moved to think it otherwise. 

The Aristotelian epigraph that introduces this chapter establishes an equivalency between the trouble of altering an existing polity and the difficulty of establishing a new one: both activities involve a critical distance that is hard to acquire. I invoke the passage here to suggest, as subsequent chapters elaborate, that the Republic attempts both enterprises simultaneously. Plato de-familarizes Athenian democracy by presenting it in a metic frame in which the established lines of Athenian membership will come unmoored: they will re-emerge as a question, not a given, for political life and pave the way for imagining a new polity in the form of the callipolis.

The liminality that opens and subtends this narrative, however, is rarely named and less often analyzed. [2] Readers have been curiously reluctant to consider that Plato’s allusions to metoikia might be contributing specific political theoretical meaning to this text. When the metic does register in studies of the dialogue, it appears less as the generative analogue to the foreigner or woman of Greek tragedy—the established linchpin of unsettling meditations on the naturalness of Athenian membership lines—than as a set of codified historical references working to reinforce the hegemonic status quo that Athenian drama, by contrast, is taken to trouble. One reason for this interpretive conclusion is that scholars assume the rhetorical function of the metic begins and ends in the first book, where the immigrants Cephalus and Polemarchus speak, and that it consists merely in confirming the poor quality of the early definitions of justice. The non-citizen status of Socrates’ wealthy hosts appears to evince the superior acumen of the citizen characters who quickly supplant the metics as the main interlocutors. If these liminal figures seem to mark, by contradistinction, a proper orientation to reason and politics, then Plato’s text affirms the citizen’s permanent distance from the non-citizen despite (if not because of) the way it places persons of varying statuses together—attending the same spectacles, praying to the same goddess, gathering privately to talk about politics. What Plato codes “metic,” then, is thought to underscore, rather than call into question, the Athenian order of inclusion. Just as the metoikos helps bring into view a certain democratic ideal of the deserving (because well-born) citizen, so its deployment in Plato’s text is assumed to indicate, by way of some dramatized inadequacy, the right way to think and speak. It is as though the real philosophical work of the dialogue could not commence without his putting metics back in their natural place.

The desire to reinforce Athenian political distinctions is a strange one to attribute, however inadvertently, to Plato, a thinker otherwise persistently read as deploring democratic practices.[3] Not only does the Republic resist positioning de-privileged figures at or outside the boundaries of intelligibility.[4] Plato’s characterization does not systematically tie variations in philosophical aptitude or interest to Athenian political or social status. There are, for instance, several citizens in the metic’s home that night who say nothing at all.[5] And while the scenic space of the discussion seems to fall away as the speakers limn the abstract space of the callipolis with greater specificity, the home of Cephalus and Polemarchus never disappears. Though most visible in the opening scenes, this house envelops the whole conversation.

The straightforward premise of this chapter is that the Republic is a metic space and that a good deal more could be said about how this feature (if it can be reduced to that) works to provoke and inflect the political theoretical concerns of this text. By “metic space,” I mean not only that metic figures enable and provide the conditions for the imaginary founding that ensues. The topography of the text also belongs entirely to Piraeus, an area characterized by intermixture, mobility, and liminality. As I argue below, Piraeus functions symbolically for Athenian democracy, much like the metics that had homes there, to give definition to the city’s autochthonous order. That the metic frames this dialogue suggests that the Republic does not simply register the nativist political realities of its setting. The dialogue assumes the importance of “the metic” to Athenian democracy, uses this relation to peer into the city, and attempts over the course of the evening to consider its workings and political effects.

This chapter takes it for granted, then, that setting is one of many resources Plato uses to signify meaning in the Republic, and it attempts to take stock of the actualities of democratic power he links to this home and to the politeia discussed therein. The discussion that imagines a colonial expedition to found a just regime unfolds in a place encoded with Athenian meanings far more specific and politically charged than typically acknowledged. We rarely appreciate that Plato might have chosen a different place to dramatize the Athenian world that provokes this city in speech. The pages that follow ask what it means that “the metic,” as a place, as an inherited status, as a way of living—I use the term in all these senses—makes up the background of this discussion. The argument I advance has an unusual objective as a result. I aim to reconstruct an atmosphere of autochthony and draw out what the Republic lightly activates. Part of the argument’s function is to set the stage for subsequent chapters in which I recast some of the dialogue’s explorations of “natural” political difference and democracy in the context of the dialogue’s immediate interest in the nativism that runs through Athenian membership politics.

In chapter one, I wagered that the metic’s difference is constitutive of citizenship in democratic Athens: if the metic is free but barred from citizen status inter-generationally on the basis of blood, Athenian citizenship is not fully accounted for as a practice of freedom. Citizen status is assigned first and foremost as a privilege of kinship, which means that freedom is a necessary but insufficient condition of full membership and, perhaps most relevant here, that it also characterizes a metic’s way of living in Athens. To argue that Plato stages this metic-citizen dynamic through the dialogue’s setting is therefore to claim that the dialogue adopts the dynamic as a device for representing the Athenian politeia; it uses this unjust relation as the dramatic and structural catalyst for the city’s transformation into the callipolis. Yet in drawing on Piraeus, Plato is also making use of a place that already operated in Athenian discourse as a topos for theorizing and organizing hierarchical relations. Plato sets the Republic in Piraeus, in other words, so as to present and re-order a hierarchy that this particular space was already and variously called on in Athens to arrange. 

Neither Piraeus nor the specific home in which the dialogue unfolds is therefore sufficiently understood as one of many tropes used by Plato to generate a desire to flee the chaotic openness of democracy for the ordered, just, and immobilized world of the callipolis. Plato depicts a world of mingling not chaos to signify a fifth-century Athenian reality.[6] The first fifteen lines of the dialogue are peculiarly thick with references to Athenian relations of power: Piraeus, Syracusan metics, Thracian residents, a slave. The question of hierarchy, in other words, does not emerge with the callipolis. It is already in Athens, in Plato’s situating first line, “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday” (327a).[7] 

Once we read the first lines in this light, Book I’s interest in the relation between what is politically marginal and symbolically central is hard to miss. The opening maps their interplay repeatedly. The narrator focuses immediately on the distance traversed between town and harbor and in the sometimes-uneasy gathering of citizens and metics. One gets the sense when reading the first book that Plato is concerned less with securing this difference than with depicting its negotiation. The opening evokes or enacts a series of Athenian practices that spans a contiguous but differentiated area. The festival that brings Socrates to Piraeus will involve two segregated parades celebrating the same foreign goddess. One belongs to natives, the other to metics. He will find their conduct equally good and with this observation, shift the reader’s thoughts, momentarily at least, to the reason for their division. If not a difference in capacity, then a difference in kinship must account for the rule that separates them. But here, in the Republic’s portrayal, that descent-based rule betrays itself as a regulatory fiction. The internal attribute that is assumed to dictate a person’s place in the social order fails to materialize as such in practice, during the very civic spectacle that is segregated so as to evince it: Socrates sees no difference in their performance. And so begins the Republic’s slow, at times oblique, examination of this unjust and precarious arrangement. The lines of Athenian membership will not be taken for granted in this text. Plato starts the Republic by putting the lie to the myth of autochthony.

The importance Athens places on metic-citizen distance and proximity finds further expression in the first book by a series of locating comments. Socrates would prefer to make his way back to town. Cephalus would like him to visit more often (328d). We can surmise from all this that Athenians do not simply cross a hierarchized space. They order a space they must cross. I say “must” partly because what helps to sustain life materially in the city of the dialogue’s setting is empire, immigrant labor, and trade. The importance of mobility, of peoples and goods, to the Athenian economy is evident in the Republic whenever Socrates worries about containing the influence of money on politics but also specifically when he asks Cephalus about the comforts wealth might bring him (329e), as if to stress a conventional association between metics and mercantilism. With money, however, the Republic will turn out to be saying something less about metics per se than about the democratic membership order of which the metic is both a product and a signifier. I argue toward the end of the chapter that Plato figures democratic membership as a way of life characterized by participation less in celebrated political practices like parrēsia than in unaccountable and social acts of flattery, trade, and private discussion, not unlike the one staged in Polemarchus’ house. If the agora was “the heart of Athenian commercial and social life,” this “blending of the civic was uncomfortable for some contemporaries,” notes Alex Gottesman.[8] Aristotle (Pol. 1331a19–b13), for instance, recommended separating the functions spatially, reserving one area for rule and citizens and another for trade and, presumably, non-citizens. A metic may signify a mercantile way of participating in the city’s political life. (Cephalus, for example, leads a free but disfranchised life.) But in Plato’s hands, this way of living acquires the status of a collective democratic habit.[9]

There is yet a further reason for thinking mobility and mingling constitute some of the central concerns of Book I. The Republic foregrounds a series of spaces and practices, the function of which is to stratify and integrate the non-citizens on whom the demos depends for its autochthonous self-conception yet maintains are wholly superfluous to it. The distance depicted in the opening scene may be bridged but it is always marked. Distance works, like the opening procession, to allegorize a certain precarious interdependence between citizen and metic, center and periphery, polis and harbor. And so the metic functions in Plato’s text, as I will argue the Piraeus also does, to draw attention to the specific terms of this democracy’s self-definition. For this reason, Piraeus, like the metic, poses a specific threat to Athens. The city depends on the harbor for its autarkeia.[10] What Aristotle (Pol. 1328b6–15) would later understand as the needs a polis must meet to achieve self-sufficiency—the provision of food, the practice of arts and crafts, the bearing of arms, the provision of material wealth, the establishment of worship of the gods, and the means to determine what is appropriate and just in people’s dealing with each other—are all fulfilled in, or with the help of, Piraeus.[11] Under these conditions, how could a city ensure that a permanent distance separates citizen from metic? Plato’s Republic does not seek to re-secure this regulatory fiction but to present it for our immediate and critical examination. 

The reading I bring forward seeks in these ways to demonstrate that Book I is not a second-rate component of the dialogue, as some readers assume. And the beginning of the dialogue generates critical insights into democratic politics that do more than simply describe, in order to critique, the democratic-imperialist vision of orderly cultural mixing and hospitality famously celebrated in Pericles’ Funeral Oration.[12] The democracy portrayed in the Republic’s setting depends instead on an openness that may be more accurately and less euphemistically described as mobility—to compensate for infertile land, to found colonies where soil is arable, to collect tributes.[13] These materialist and symbolic rationales may be displaced from Pericles’ Funeral Oration but they are not absent from the Republic.[14] Like the place they live, the wealthy, shield-making, colony-settling, immigrant family of Cephalus symbolizes migration, trade, colonization, war, the democratic ordering of persons and spaces, and the instability of these status assignments. For like mythical Ion in the last chapter, the real Cephalus became a metic in Athens before becoming a settler of a colony (Thurii) on Athens’ behalf. At each point, the flux in his status was the effect of a physical movement, but it was also apparently a consequence of a Periclean invitation—of a call to serve Athens. 

The chapter unfolds in four sections that focus attention around two persistently under-analyzed features of the Republic’s opening: the figuration of metics and the dialogue’s setting in Piraeus. In the first two, I diagnose the interpretive assumptions that have made it difficult to appreciate that the metic functions as a site of discursive and political theoretical meaning in the Republic. I then suggest we read Cephalus as the embodiment of a troubling kind of democratic power (autochthonous, mercantile, stealth) that is not exclusively possessed by metics but, when read with Book VI in mind, illuminating of Athenian membership more generally. Section three returns us to Piraeus to provide a close reading of the Bendis festival, arguing that the processions signify the city’s autochthonous order of rule. What Socrates sees in Piraeus, I conclude in the final section, calls into question the citizen’s natural difference from the metic and clears the way for a new membership order called the “callipolis” (527c2), which I consider in chapter four’s reading of the noble lie.

If the Republic’s allusions to metoikia have seemed too marginal to take stock of until now, that may be because they are “casual and stressed,” to use Edward Said’s evocative language, “both incidental, referred to only in passing, and absolutely crucial to the action.”[15] Rather than assume that the dialogue begins with an autochthonous re-ordering that marginalizes metics and sets Book I’s struggling arguments on the right track, let us look again at how this text begins and where it remains, in a space over-determined by hierarchy of a most uncertain kind.

A Hermeneutics of Assimilation

The opening of Plato’s Republic is often understood as a nexus of failures—of argumentative acumen, Socratic method, and philosophical consistency—redeemed by the commitments and cohesiveness of the dialogue’s subsequent books. This common reading of “thwarted ascents” finds its basis in the apparent instruction of the dialogue, which in Book I displays a series of starts and stops that begins with Socrates’ frustrated attempt to leave Piraeus and culminates in his supposed quashing of Thrasymachus’ efforts to dominate the discussion by way of a successful, albeit figurative, escape to the callipolis.[16] 

Otherwise unable to reconcile what they perceive as inconsistencies in style and argument, commentators used to argue with frequency that the first thirty lines were remnants of a lost Platonic text added to the Republic at a later date.[17] The “hypothesis of its early composition,” wrote Gregory Vlastos, “may be favored in the strength and preponderance of the stylistic evidence.”[18] In recent years, readers have been less inclined to see the book’s fit as a question of composition continuity. Yet the tendency to cast its theoretical importance in terms of inadequacy persists. Thus, in C. D. C. Reeve’s estimation, the Republic’s opening misfires but in a way that is purposeful, performed, and pedagogical. Readers may feel frustration and disappointment at Socrates’ inability to offer sufficient arguments early on, but this experience is illuminating: It instructs readers in the philosophical importance of argumentative style. And so in Book II when Glaucon suggests Socrates may not be achieving his aim if it is really to convince them, Plato provides a “new beginning” that suggests the failure of Book I is part of a narrative arc. What makes the opening a critical component of the Republic on these views is that Book I adumbrates several important themes unsatisfactorily that are treated more substantively in later books.[19] 

Such efforts to understand the significance of Book I’s function within the Republic take as paramount the text’s thematic coherence. Even so, these attempts to understand the critical purchase of Book I prioritize a doctrinal reading of dialogue. They judge the theoretical importance of Book I largely by the validity of the claims that proceed from and correct for the shortcomings of the opening, their (in)ability to provoke consensus, and by the argumentative success of later speakers. As responses to the dialogue’s stark shifts in characterization, tone, and conversational style, the accounts bring a certain set of expectations to the Republic’s opening. They treat the first book as a stylistic and philosophical outlier and unwittingly inhibit a reading in which other features of the Republic, such as its staging and characterization, might generate their own meaning and pose political questions by rhetorical means.

To assume the marginality of the opening is therefore also to underappreciate the specifically metic resources Plato utilizes in these scenes. Under the presumption that the first book is lacking, critics tend to treat the metic status of the hosts and liminal spaces and practices of the text’s milieu as largely irrelevant to the Republic’s central political and theoretical concerns. That these metics appear to drop out of the discussion after Book I only underscores that sense. 

In an essay titled “Who is Cephalus,” for example, Peter Steinberger sets out to correct for this “marginal” character’s under-appreciation,[20] but as Sara Monoson notes, “neglects” even “to discuss the family’s status as metics.”[21] The metoikia that is rendered theoretically unimportant by way of an erasure may be just as disavowed by the rare reading that attempts to take its full measure. The relatively few critics who address the metic in the Republic—Ruby Blondell and David Whitehead among them—tend to read the metic figure not as a site of political theoretical meaning but as a literal and historical referent to a legal order of inclusion that ultimately carries little symbolic importance for the dialogue’s arguments. Their accounts, while brief, are crucial to work through because they glimpse but then curiously retreat from the metic’s peculiar theoretical power: its resistance to neat classification within the citizen/foreigner dyad that governs studies of classical democratic citizenship.

I argued in chapter one that the category “metic” classes free, economically diverse men and women, and their children born in Athens. The metic’s figuration in the Republic, then, need not function to secure the binaries (citizen/slave, native/foreigner, mass/elite, male/female) that scholars traditionally use to articulate Athenian membership politics. For the metic troubles each one. When readers fail to grant this disquieting in-betweenness to the metic, they are assimilating its figuration to one of two dominant categories: foreigner/anti-citizen or quasi-citizen/citizen. They oscillate between positioning the metic at the outer limits of the political (like the foreigner, a symbol of pure externality) or assume, as they do with Cephalus, that the metic is so much like a citizen that his figuration in the Republic does not signify de-privileged membership. This interpretive habit culminates in an elision of the metic’s particularity and amounts to reading past the metic altogether. 

To spell out this argument and explore its political theoretical stakes, the remainder of this section looks carefully at what we might call a hermeneutics of assimilation. Without appreciating the sense in which the metic constitutes the outside that is permanently within the polis, readers inadvertently enlist this figure in support of an autochthonous ideal: the notion that there is a stable inside and outside to begin with. Once his metoikia is restored to the Republic, Cephalus emerges as a powerful example of a precarious liminality: he is citizen-like only because he is first and foremost a metic and thus illuminating not of what democratic citizenship means juridically but of what it is always in danger of becoming (in practice).

Ruby Blondell’s chief concern in her engaging and wide-ranging study of Plato’s dialogues is to make a case for the philosophical importance of their literary features. Her reading of the Republic raises a number of crucial details about the real Cephalus and his family but ultimately turns away from addressing how these matters of historical context bear on the political or theoretical meaning of these metics in the Republic. She writes:

The historical Kephalos was not an Athenian citizen but a wealthy Syracusan who had settled in Attica with his sons as a resident alien or metic. This particular metic family was unusually well known as such, thanks to its victimization by the Thirty Tyrants. In socio-political terms, this status is an ambiguous one. Metics were not, of course, enfranchised members of the polis, and were sometimes viewed as a kind of “anticitizen.” As such they were associated with crafts, banausia (manual work) and money-making. The setting of Republic at Peiraeus recalls the fact that metics could not own property within the city walls of Athens without special dispensation … Many, like Kephalos, were not only wealthy but well-connected. Plato never mentions that Kephalos and his family are foreigners, and in real life they seem to have moved in the highest Athenian democratic circles.[22]

Elsewhere in the discussion Blondell stresses the de-privileged standing of this family—the “setting” in Piraeus, she adds, “emphasizes rather their status as outsiders”—but she concludes nonetheless that the family that provokes the Republic is especially difficult to categorize because of their money and their influence.[23] What makes Cephalus’ classification indeterminate for Blondell is not the messiness of metic status. (Recall that in her view metics are anti-citizens.) The difficulty concerns the family’s exceptional biographical details, which Blondell takes to mean that Cephalus transcended his metoikia. Despite the eventual execution of his son Polemarchus by the Thirty in 404 BCE, Cephalus’ family is assumed to have mitigated the un-salutary effects of their precarious status by socioeconomic means.[24] 

The view that the hosts of the Republic are exceptional metics aligns with the conclusion reached by David Whitehead, who argues that Cephalus’ prominence is less an effect of his metoikia than an escape from it. Whitehead turns to Plato’s depiction of Cephalus to support a mounting historical argument about the ways metics’ wealth, education, and social ties could compensate for the inequalities their juridical status afforded. The Republic’s figuration of metoikia provides evidence of this social reality, he thinks: “It might be ironic, but I doubt it: Cephalus has simply reached the stage—economically, socially, intellectually—where Plato is oblivious of any connection between him and the metoikoi and xenoi who, in a democratic polis, tend (deplorably) to become assimilated to astoi (563A).”[25] Worth keeping in mind is that Cephalus is a metic figure of rare density in Athenian political thought, and he recurs in Whitehead’s study of the metic to underscore the important historical claim that juridical standing was only one “criterion of differentiation” in Athenian society.[26] High levels of social or economic status, Whitehead argues, are not captured—indeed they may even be mischaracterized—by the title metoikos, a point he supports with reference to the “reluctance” Athenians felt about calling the immigrants who made “enormous” contributions to the city “metics,” even though “that is what they were.”[27] Whitehead’s argument attributes an explanatory power to this conventional practice of (not) naming, which he then attributes to the Republic:[28] The wealth and education of a man like Cephalus could “confound” metic status in Athens; that Plato never refers to the well-known family as metoikoi attests to their high status but also, paradoxically, to the sense in which they were not really metics after all. If this sounds like Xouthos, whose attempt in the previous chapter to convince Ion that social and economic mobility could nullify a metic’s status, that is because both views imply that a rich immigrant’s legal status does not capture his lived experience in Athens, which is, at least in practice, equivalent to a citizen’s. The Republic, on Whitehead’s reading, does not figure the metic way of life I have been tracking so far in this study, since in Plato’s eyes, Cephalus was no different from a citizen. 

There is, however, nothing in the text of the Republic to discount the possibility that the dialogue is interested in the very metoikia Whitehead seems to downplay or conflate with citizenship. Plato’s dialogues do not typically announce the juridical status of their historical characters. A contemporaneous audience is likely to have known this particular family of immigrants by name (Cephalus was one of the wealthiest men in Athens) and, as Blondell indicated above, to have known the special risk they incurred during the reign of the Thirty. Although we need not perform the sort of assimilating move on Cephalus that Whitehead suggests (perhaps too sanguinely) that Athens did, there is nonetheless a crucial insight in his reading of this character that, while he does not extend it to Plato’s text, is worth pursuing for the possibilities it opens up in the Republic

The sense that Cephalus is like a citizen in Plato’s text leads Whitehead to conclude that under certain conditions, juridical status ceases to matter in democracy. Such metic-citizen similitude, he suggests, functions as a way of eliding the metic’s difference from the citizen and so it conveys, supposedly on behalf of Plato, the conventional Athenian view that wealth trumps blood. This is again a version of Xouthos’ claim: Blood-based status does not decide Athenian membership practice, not because blood is indeterminate and uncertain of action but because in this autochthonous regime, the wealth that a metic is free to secure can compensate for a lack of juridical (and inherited) privilege. But there is another possibility. Money and high social status bestow influence that rivals or, worse, starts to define what it means to share in a politeia for citizens as well. This claim is not the empirical observation Whitehead would like it to be. It is a theoretical point, and it is afforded not by blindness to Cephalus’ metoikia but by an acknowledgment of its peculiar contours. To consider what it means to say that Cephalus is like a citizen in the Republic means first seeing him as a metic. It involves addressing how a metic’s freedom and exclusion from rule are conditions that, when taken together, represent a uniquely qualified form of membership that may be emblematic of what Athenian citizenship comes to mean in Plato’s post-figuration of this Periclean moment. 

The Republic raises the possibility of a similitude between metics and citizens in Book VIII where Socrates provides an explicit articulation of this sort of blurring. He asserts there that in democracy citizens are made equal to each other and vice versa (563a). This passage, which I will read closely in chapter five, constitutes the only reference to the metic qua metic in the Republic. Curiously, it is the one Whitehead emphatically disarticulates from the figuration of Cephalus in Book I.[29] His argument keeps Plato’s figuration of metic characters separate from the characters’ statements about metics despite the fact that their connection would actually serve his view that Cephalus is like a citizen for the Republic. It is worth figuring out how Whitehead’s argument can hold the similitude between metics and citizens to be theoretically insignificant at the level of characterization while nevertheless attributing theoretical significance to its invocation in Book VIII. 

Consider once again the conclusion that Cephalus is like a citizen for Plato because this metic is wealthy and socially prominent. On this line, Book VIII’s anxieties about proximity and blurring would have to concern poorer metics like banausoi (craftsmen) exclusively. For Whitehead, then, wealth neutralizes Cephalus’ political difference in Athens and therefore should for Plato, too. And though he concedes that “even men like Cephalus, high ‘scorers’ on some counts, were ultimately fettered by the limits of political immobility,”[30] he stops short of asking how this limit might also factor into the Republic’s interest in Cephalus. Neither he nor Blondell considers the possibility that the almost-but-not-quite-ness of Cephalus—the exclusion and the wealth that characterize his way of living—is the very metic-ness at stake in Book I. If in Athens, the citizen is constituted against the metic’s (uneven) exclusion, then the peculiarities of the metic’s inclusion might lead us to understand the citizen as well.

Right off the bat the Republic associates Cephalus with economic mobility and religious worship. These details are typically read as signs of the metic’s Athenian conventionality, of a piety and materialism unhampered by metic status, even though they are the only areas of civic life into which the metic was officially permitted. “Unlike the slave,” as Mary G. Dietz observes, the metic “is granted access to the agora yet unlike the citizen he is denied political capacity in the assembly.”[31] Any influence a wealthy metic acquires is thus partly a consequence of this particular freedom. Freedom might enable wealth and influence but, as my reading of Demosthenes will suggest, wealthy metics are not the only ones who can pass as citizens. The possibility not only of being “like” but also of (deceptively) masquerading as a citizen is open to and suspected among the working (immigrant) poor precisely because they are included in the demos.

To the extent that Cephalus is a “model metic,” then, he is a figure of “conditioned inactivity” who avoids the law courts and, like his sons, keeps to his own affairs, tending to his fortune, his religious rites, and the military needs of his adopted city.[32] As Lysias recollects in a moving speech, his father did not just take from Athens. Cephalus gave back, arming Athenian soldiers, presumably in the Peloponnesian War, with shields he produced in his factory. His trade protected Athenians even, we can assume, in their expeditions to fight against his native Syracuse. He served Athens and Athens served him. The seasoned colonist who leaves the evening’s conversation before it turns to the question of founding a colony is a reminder not or not only of the limited privileges afforded the metic but also of the metic’s economic and symbolic importance to Athenian politics.

We are now in a position to question the common view that Cephalus, like his son Polemarchus, has no real hand in establishing the callipolis that takes shape because he is either too staid or too traditional to partake in the rewriting of the order by which he has done well. For the act of piety that draws the old man away from the conversation before it has found its footing is a religious sacrifice, the very purification rite Greek colonists performed before laying down their foundations in a new place. The much-noted departure of Socrates’ host might be less a sign of his exclusion from the discussion than a mark of his crucial participation. Cephalus’ role in the founding of the Athenian colony at Thurii suggests this metic is familiar with what the ventures entail. What if his sacrifice in the Republic is the move that enables the founding of the callipolis to proceed?[33]  

But I am getting ahead of myself. What Cephalus represents in his so-called success, then, is not full participation in the institutions of the polis—it is not citizenship—but the insinuating and necessary membership that is enabled by a political condition of liminality. This is a way of living freely and vulnerably, of “merely” abiding, of possessing a political capacity and the disallowed potential to exercise it.[34] These dimensions of metoikia fall to the wayside when readers assimilate metics like Cephalus to the citizen or the foreigner. When the metic’s precariousness drops out of the picture, so does its power for signifying democratic politics and membership. To see this more clearly, I turn now to Book VI.

Metic Citizens

I have been suggesting so far that the Republic’s interest in the metic’s liminal status and political power in Athens—what metoikia means as a democratic category and as a way of life—bears on and opens up the dialogue’s political theoretical arguments. The specific historical meanings of the metic inform its symbolic role in the Republic and shape its power as a figuration that generates critical insights about democratic membership and Athenian hierarchy even when the metic qua metic is far from view. This new angle onto the text permits us to use what we know about metics in Athens and what the dialogue figures about them, in its characterization, setting, and callipolis proposals, as a lens for reading other passages about Athenian democracy—moments in the text that seem, at first glance, to bear only an incidental relation to the metic. This is the case with Book VI. 

Though far from a systematic or comprehensive account, the sections I consider below sketch a picture of insinuating, liminal membership as the specter of a corrupt democratic power that crosses citizenship boundaries. The figure of the unaccountable yet omnipresent sophist-orator, whose work behind the scenes of the assembly and the courts trains citizen speakers and in some cases even produces their speech, emerges as the real source of political influence in democracy and constitutes the main problem to which Plato’s writing is so often some response. The primary targets of Socrates’ critique of democratic membership here are political speech and voting, celebrated hallmarks of citizen life that nonetheless appear wholly ineffectual in this account. That the dialogue stages the frankest speech inside a home, not in a political setting, is perhaps an early signal to this charge. Soon we will see Socrates invert the Periclean adage to suggest that Athenians actually direct their public lives to private matters.[35] The metic, as the figuration of a certain unaccountable and vulnerable political power, is the key to drawing out the critical democratic import of this state of affairs. 

We read that a politically active and ambitious citizen can have no future unless he joins secret clubs where he can forge allegiances of influence and garner support to use later in the assembly.[36] He will pay teachers of persuasion, like the foreigners Gorgias and Thrasymachus, in order to learn the methods of argumentation and force that make up the “wisdom of the assembly and the lawcourts” (365d). The private, furtive dimension of politicking—the only one open to metics—may be formally unaccounted for but it is as good as institutionalized in Socrates’ remarks. Participation in the deliberative institutions of democratic politics (i.e. the assembly and the courts) does not by itself constitute or illuminate membership in his account. Socrates places them within a range of formal and informal gatherings that, in their role of sustaining democracy, paradoxically end up undermining the privileges exclusively afforded citizens. 

The Republic pares democratic politics down to the actions not of citizens but of the teachers and sophists who educate in private—who can “turn [paideuein] young and old, men and women into anything they want” (492b)—and thus reach a political community that, like the non-citizen rhetor himself, exceeds the boundaries of the demos and belongs to the polis as a whole. These students and their private educators breed a culture of conformity, fear, cynicism, and hopelessness that makes disagreement, whether in “assemblies,” “courts,” “theaters,” or “military camps”—any of the public sites at which “the multitude” (plethos) gathers—unpopular if not impossible (492b).[37] “How can he avoid agreeing with the crowd about good and bad, following the same way of life as the crowd, and being like the crowd?” (492c). It would be folly to try and stand up to them, for there is not, never has been, and never will be a different type of ethos trained in arete “in defiance of the education these sophists provide” (492e). The Republic’s account of the widespread indoctrination of citizens by sophistic types, not just self-proclaimed sophists, recasts the democratic relation in terms of domination not equality, but it is a relation nevertheless secured by a practice of emulation, akin to a collective act of conformity.

In Athens, teachers of sophistry, like Gorgias, were often foreign. But in the dialogue, it is worth stressing, foreign origins do not render this formative dimension of democracy, this sophistic way, alien or unnatural to the city. Socrates’ further point is that each of these paid teachers is in fact teaching nothing but the dogmata expressed by “the general public” in its gatherings and which they call wisdom (493a). [38] The troubling elements of democracy’s political culture, in other words, are not imported. They are part of a self-affirming democratic operation that relies not only on intimidation but also on an underclass of free resident aliens whose political influence, because restricted, lies in pandering to and mirroring what citizens already think and desire.[39] The conduct that sophists model for their students to emulate, then, is the sort of behavior one would expect from someone keeping a “large, powerful creature,” someone who gets to know “its likes and dislikes, how to approach it, how to handle it, when and why it is most awkward and most amenable, the various sounds it is in the habit of making in different situations” (493a–b).[40] Political success or survival means being with the animal over a long period of time and devising a way of teaching its habits, or this sensitivity to habit, as though it were itself a kind of (political) knowledge. “The message,” Malcolm Schofield concludes, “is that the Beast controls” the animal-keeper, not the other way around.[41] But the animal-keeper is the one educating the Beast in the values and styles of subservience, flattery, and indirect approach. Socrates’ remarks would seem to anticipate Book VIII’s bi-directional mimetic blurring, which chapter five will soon explore in detail. 

What passes as political speech in Athens, whether we cast it as teaching, public address, or the art of rhetoric, is in the Republic’s account likened to a cautious process of assimilation. An outsider gains fluency in democratic speech by learning the vulnerabilities and desires of the wider culture the outsider must infiltrate without unsettling.[42] It is a job most obviously done and figured by a metic, whose meaning for the city shifts precariously between the extraneous and the necessary, but it emerges unequivocally in this dialogue as a democratic ethos. No one, whether foreign or native, citizen or alien can disagree with the demos without risking his life (493d). By convincing the public of what they already think is true, the teacher of persuasion finds a safe place from which to reflect the demos back to itself and thus models emulation as a political art. We will hear echoes of the sophist-orator-citizen of Book VI in chapter five, when we encounter the imagined metic listener of Pericles’ Funeral Oration and consider Socrates’ metic impersonation in the Menexenus. Pericles’ metic listener will serve to reinvigorate and reaffirm the city’s political culture and transform himself in the process from a potentially divisive force into a vessel of democratic virtue.[43] The Republic’s presentation of democratic virtue could not be further from the one celebrated in Pericles’ speech, which describes excellence in terms of heroic public acts. In the Funeral Oration, political activity will involve an obsequious practice of (metic) flattery, the most pleasing form of which is imitation itself. In the Republic and the Menexenus, however, the citizen is just as implicated in the act of imitating as the metic.

The simplest point to take from all this is that the metic’s way of living in democracy is not unique to the non-citizen. Forbidden from making any real changes to the city’s way of life, people learn that only the “person who takes the city as it is, who is the people’s most beguiling servant and flatterer, who creeps into their good graces, who anticipates their wishes and is adept at satisfying them—this person they will declare a fine man, a man profoundly wise” (426c). The democratic city honors the submissive and stealthy person Socrates so famously reviles in Thrasymachus’ character. The Republic figures public speaking as a kind of sophistic operation that charges clients to recirculate old and flattering ideas. Such speech is not the exclusive, salutary, or deliberative practice through which the citizen and only the citizen actualizes his membership. Here speaking in front of the assembly, an activity from which metics were formally barred, is impossible even for citizens. The assembly’s exclusive goings-on are really dominated by private, mercenary educators and so they are like any public gathering at which attendance is hardly policed (558a). 

Book VI provides us with one (but not the only) sense in which “the metic is made equal to the citizen, and the citizen to the metic” (563a).[44] Citizens are insiders who become formally disenfranchised while non-citizens gain the same, if not more, access to the informal practices that are as much produced by, as they are generative of, democratic rule. To see how the institutions which bestow citizenship and enable the well born to practice it are corrupt in this sense is also to see how easily citizens may be effectively disenfranchised, how easily they may become “like” metics. Socrates’ interest in the range of spaces in which politics takes place, the scope and intensity of the encounters Plato depicts between metics and citizens, and the text’s focus on democracy’s blood-based lines of division have already begun to suggest that how a city is shared and how its residents are arranged deeply shapes expectations for, perhaps even constitutes, the meaning of membership in a polity. This possibility will find clearer expression in my reading of the setting and opening scenes. With this in mind, let us go back to Book I.

What Happens in Piraeus

It may seem like a truism to say that Socrates spends his evening trying to escape Piraeus, first literally, then figuratively. The narrator remembers that he intended to walk back to Athens but was unexpectedly detained. In the course of reading we realize he spent the whole evening there concocting an alternative regime from the one in which he lives. It is partly this uncontroversial portrait of the dialogue’s frame and its relation to the text’s arc that leads Jacques Rancière to conclude that the “whole political project of Platonism can be conceived as an anti-maritime polemic.” For Plato, he adds, the “sea smells of sailors. It smells of democracy,” which means “the task of philosophy is to found a different politics, a politics of conversion which turns its back on the sea.”[45] 

We could read the Republic’s setting as an elaboration of the harbor’s general associations with demotic power, the sorts of connections that in antiquity made this place “a sacrilege … to the traditional, antidemocratic elite.”[46] This picture, however, is incomplete if not misleading. The political and symbolic meanings of Piraeus are not univocal and they are certainly not as un-hierarchical as the assessment above would lead us to believe. To the extent that our view of Plato’s “politics” depends on how we think about the relation between the callipolis and the place in which this “city in speech” is taken up, it would seem worth having another look at the signifying powers of Piraeus and the activities that go on there. Let us consider more carefully not just what kind of democratic power is figured there but how it is figured. Let us ask, in other words, to what Athenian state of affairs the callipolis is in response. For while hardly novel, the critical view that the callipolis is born of an act of turning away from democracy depends on a series of interpretive assumptions about this democracy (not to mention the “sea” by which it is figured) that are difficult to square with the political realities of democratic Athens, the meanings of Piraeus, and perhaps most crucially the rhetorical strategies Plato uses to bring them all together in this text. 

Athenians left from Piraeus to settle colonies on behalf of their city. But the characters that make up this dialogue never go anywhere. In fact, the enterprise of imagining the callipolis is enabled by, embedded in, and inseparable from the seaside where it is taken up. What is more, the conversation takes a decidedly Athenian form when Plato portrays it as a colonial expedition. As much as the callipolis might eschew the order of its Athenian setting, its founders do not. Socrates makes use of his city’s practices and idioms to imagine this alternative place. The imperial dimension of Athenian maritime power and the mobility and hierarchical membership with which it is bound up is nevertheless occluded by readings that tether the sea exclusively to the demotic power of the fleet, as if that demos were not itself directly constituted by the same autochthonous difference that justified imperial expansion. “There can be no doubt that Piraeus was both a condition for, and a symbol of, democracy,” as Sitta Von Reden notes. But since “both democracy and the maritime empire were the result of the orientation of the Athenian polis towards the sea,” the dialogue’s staging of “the relationship between the harbor and the city of Athens” is also an evocation of democratic mobility, imperial expansion, and the city’s autochthonous order.[47] The Republic permits a reading in which these historically variegated meanings inflect its figuration of Piraeus as a real inhabited place and provoke reflection into the workings of democracy as such. If the sea smells of democracy, it also smells of empire, immigrants, and trade.

Of course, the Republic’s topography is not lost on commentators. To the extent that critics take the opening’s geospatial allusions to reek of egalitarianism, they assume that their function is to anticipate the descent and ascent evoked later by the allegory of the cave. The allusions, in other words, lay the groundwork for Socrates’ figurative flight from the liminal place of Piraeus. The stakes of casting the rhetorical function of the Republic’s setting this way are significant. So long as Piraeus is understood to elicit a desire to escape democracy for a kind of utopia (an abstract, anti-democratic, rationalizing space), the Republic’s landscape signifies little more than a kind of privation. To the extent that Piraeus is in this dialogue in order to be transcended, Plato figures this place for the same reason he is assumed to represent the metic: both are deficient and serve to make the retreat to the callipolis feel urgent. 

Together, these two interpretive assumptions—Piraeus signifies a form of unsavory egalitarian power; the text instructs us to leave this place behind as it gives shape to the callipolis—work to impede a reading in which Plato’s interest in democracy extends to the blood-based membership practices that helped sustain it, not simply to lament them but to present them critically. The setting of this text need not function just to demarcate two spheres, pure and impure, philosophical and political, high and low, abstract and embodied. For one thing, the two textual spaces of the Republic are not so easily separated. Plato makes one the condition for the other’s discursive construction. One zone emerges inside the other. 

My quarrel therefore is not with the interpretive tendency to contrast Athens with the callipolis (I do so myself in the next chapter). What I want to call into question is the habit of thought that presumes their neat separation is necessary, which is to say, somehow dictated by the text’s narrative structure, or even the most illuminating way to take stock of the layered structure of this dialogue. Such prying apart not only risks obfuscating the extent to which one space serves as the ground for the other. It also distracts us from reflecting on the historical specificity of the conversation’s location and the theoretical possibilities this specificity enables.[48] 

The more Plato deploys direct dialogue to construct the callipolis, the less we hear from the narrator, whose voice so famously locating in the opening lines—“I went down to Piraeus yesterday” (327a)—recedes after Book I and irrupts into the action of the text only occasionally thereafter. The Piraeus starts in the foreground. That it shifts to the background, however, does not mean that it ceases to bear on the action the narrator presents in the foreground or that it should not factor into our interpretation of the text. The difficult question is how to make sense of a place that seems to fall away but never actually disappears. 

To see this issue more clearly, consider how a tragic performance uses scenic space to generate “meta-theatricality.” For Rush Rehm, a meta-theatrical space emerges when a “playwright momentarily foregrounds the fact of dramatic performance by alluding to theatrical representation … by parodying dramatic and other performance genres … by manipulating various ‘plots within plots.’”[49] The point here is not only that Plato’s text thematizes the means of its own construction when it has Socrates mime Plato in the act of constructing a mimetic world. It is that this kind of imaginary play always bears a relation to the fictive (i.e. scenic) setting in which it is taken up.[50] Theater, as Rehm stresses, is not an empty space, which means that the meta-mimetic aspect of Plato’s text, the construction of a fictional world within a historically locatable but mimetic place, produces a doubled textual space that invites a reading of one against the other.[51] Plato takes pains to hold together two spaces, then, the liminal yet politically significant home of Cephalus and Polemarchus and the mimetic space of the callipolis that emerges within it. He does this, I have been suggesting, to provoke reflection on what we might call a third, Athenian democracy. [52] Piraeus is the literal and figurative space of democracy and empire’s interrelations, which means the opening confronts us with the contiguity democracy posits between blood and inclusion, foreignness and exclusion, citizenship and power. The implications of this framing for the political theoretical reception of the Republic will become clearer in the next two chapters where I advance close readings of the noble lie and Socrates’ portrait of democracy in and because of the interpretive field I construct here. For now, let us focus on what it means for the opening scenes.

I noted earlier that the relation between Piraeus and Athens was a familiar topos for imagining and contesting various conceptions of Athens and its autarchy. The sense that “the Piraeus became the true centre of the polis” was “a chimera … in anti-democratic texts” but one that nevertheless reflected a real shift in everyday activities from the polis to the harbor throughout the period of the Republic’s setting.[53] Elite critics of democracy were not the only ones who sought to contain the harbor’s political influence, however.[54] Concerns that the port might come to overtake the privileged position of the town it was working to sustain materially and symbolically found expression in specific democratic measures aimed at limiting the harbor’s political autonomy. Despite the fact that Piraeus was one of Athens’ demes, it occupied a kind of second-class status not dissimilar from the metic. Residents of Piraeus, for instance, did not select their own demarch. He was selected in “town” (Arist., Ath.Pol. 54.8). While it may have emerged as a rival urban center, in other words, Piraeus did so “under close control of the assembly."[55] Even in its street design, Piraeus “was constructed conceptually as a colony at the periphery of the polis.”[56] 

The Athenian need to manage its precarious relation to Piraeus figures greatly in the Republic’s opening scenes. In crafting the Republic against this metic backdrop, Plato invites the reader to consider the democratic polis as both the bounded Athenian community its laws were drafted to police and the political community that sustains and exceeds it. Cephalus may complain that Socrates does not make the trip often to his house but the point is that he does come (328c). That the harbor’s residents, while remote, make up the political community and culture Socrates services and learns from is reflected by his decision to return to their house that evening, as he does at least occasionally.[57] But it is the festival spectatorship Plato uses to open this dialogue that poses the most trenchant challenge to the democratic membership order. The activity that provokes the trip to the home that will serve as the site and incitement of the creation of the callipolis demands our careful analysis. The question to keep in mind is how this opening activity bears a relationship to the imaginary political founding to which it gives way.

Foreign cults were not uncommon in classical Athens but the story of the cult of Bendis, whose inaugural celebration Socrates ventures to the harbor to watch, is especially illuminating of metics’ integration in the city. Thracians had apparently brought Bendis to Athens several years before the festival. And it is the “influence and presence” of these metics, Sara M. Wijma explains, that accounts for Bendis’ eventual acceptance “as an official polis cult.”[58] Upon its inauguration in 413/12, the polis festival for the goddess included two separate processions and a torch-race on horseback, the two spectacles around which Plato organizes Socrates’ physical movements in the Republic

Worshippers who performed sacred rites (orgia) for gods or heroes were usually organized into groups around a particular deity. These groups were composed of members of Athenian phratries, kinship groups that over time acted as the principle networks through which access to citizenship was controlled. Sometime between the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE, however, metics were allowed to become orgeones without being allowed into phratries.[59] The city permitted Thracian worshippers of Bendis living in Athens to organize and worship the goddess at Munychia along with citizen worshippers.[60] Although the polis-wide festival was controlled by the Athenian demos, both epichorioi (local natives) and Thracian metics shared in the celebration as part of the “same Athenian worshipping community.”[61] The “religious behavior” of these metics was “hardly distinguishable” from that of their citizen counterparts and yet they worshipped Bendis in “their own way.”[62] 

According to Corinne Pache, the case of two distinct “ethnic groups” that “worship the same goddess, participate in the same sacrifices and festival, organize themselves in different associations bearing the same name, yet never mix or fuse into one single group” suggests Athenians saw Thracians as something more than “barbarian.” She reads the historical case of Bendis in Athens to mean that the city’s dealings with foreigners and foreignness were characterized by a degree of ambivalence. And yet, she adds, the decision to Hellenize the foreign elements of Bendis’ worship and maintain two separate rituals is evidence that the polarity that existed “at the ideological level” between the two groups was also upheld in practice.[63] Similarly, for Von Reden, the Bendideia bespeaks less of “a general toleration of foreign cults” than of the “powerful strategies” Athenians had “for maintaining cultural boundaries.”[64] 

In his notes on the Republic, James Adam points out that the dialogue is referring to Thracian metics not mercenaries or envoys when it depicts Socrates at the first of these festivals, and he stresses on this point their residency and influence. Metics lived “for commercial purposes in the Piraeus,” he says, “which at all times contained a large admixture of foreign population. It was part of Athenian policy,” he continues, “to encourage commercial settlers by allowing them to exercise their own cults.”[65] This casts the Bendideia in a slightly different light. It invites us to read the figuration of the festival not as a sign of polarity or inclusion but as an Athenian concession to a material and symbolic dependence. 

Alert to this possibility, I want to look again at how Plato starts the Republic: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston, to offer a prayer to the goddess. Also I wanted to watch the festival, to see how they would conduct it, since this was the first time it was being celebrated. The parade of Athenians struck me as excellent, and the show put on by the Thracians was every bit as impressive, I thought” (327a). The Republic commences with a festival that, like the polis overall, is divided by blood. “Ritual differentiation” may have been “instrumental in the carrying out, displaying, and (re)affirming of the constituent parts of the polis and the (re)creation of identities and hierarchies,”[66] but the dialogue does not take these intentions for granted. The narrator immediately adds that one parade appeared (ephaineto) just as good as the other. The remarks provoke reflection on the criterion for their division and its salience. The dual parades are supposed simply to convey the expressive difference that separates the two kinship groups.

We will see later that Pericles encourages the foreign listeners of his funeral oration to emulate Athenians. He intimates, however, that they can only ever approximate the citizens they copy. Whether reassuring or menacing, the speech implies that an autochthonous difference is apparent during the carrying out of Athenian deeds; the acts work to confirm the exception that is said to precede them. They correspond to a difference that in such cases as the Bendideia is open for all to see. In Plato’s rendition, however, the sort of spectacle and spectatorship needed to affirm this Athenian exception leads to a much less salutary, we might even say contrary, judgment. The problem is not just that the parades rest on a fictional autochthonous difference—the noble lie will suggest this is true of all founding myths—but that this noble lie is apparently fictitious, which is to say, it regulates the production of citizens poorly, because it ends not in the confirming clarity of a pre-given difference but in a demonstration of its ambiguous effects. 

Recall that the definition of the demos and the rationale for empire rest on the same autochthonous logic or what Derrida calls an “aristo-democracy of brothers.”[67] In the previous chapter, I read Euripides’ Ion to suggest that when a polis colonizes but restricts citizenship to the “well born,” it generates the metic, a figure whose inclusion-exclusion enables both the promise and risk of this form of membership not only because it makes it possible or inevitable to “pass” but because it calls into question the very pre-givenness of the metic’s exclusion. Only a scene as carefully and uniquely crafted as the opening of the Republic could deliver a similar insight. Plato studiously avoids depicting a disordered polity in these first lines. He stages a polis-sanctioned event, whose very design as a segregated spectacle represents the city’s autochthonous ideal (in the form of a spatial division) and thus requires the spectatorship that threatens to undo it.[68] These necessary practices of segregation, worshipping, parading, and spectatorship follow a prior act of cultural mixing: this polis is apparently used to absorbing foreigners like Bendis. Athenians are again acting like metics.

In the Republic, Thracian metics are observed performing the tending of sacred rites, a citizen deed, just as well as Athenians. The metics possess a political capacity, in other words, that the city disavows at the same time that it helps them actualize it. Such a revelation is, if not the clearest indication that the membership lines of Athenian democracy are constructed and unstable, then a precursor of things to come. What gives the Republic’s insight critical power is that Socrates’ judgment of the parades comes about as a consequence of the city’s own arrangement, a point we might just as easily apply to the representation of passing we found in Euripides and will soon see figured in Demosthenes. 

What if the rest of the Republic were a response to this state of affairs? The dialogue opens by showing us the wrong way to keep an autochthonous order looking fixed and pre-given. Then it shows us the right way. Book I’s staging of democratic flux clears a space not for any autochthonous regime but specifically for the callipolis. This “just” polis will not only assign status on the basis of performance (not blood); it will also arrange its members, practices, and institutions so as to ensure that the artifice of its “natural” order will remain hidden from its members at all costs.

Razing Ground

The callipolis takes shape after the first book and so it lacks, with some exceptions, the contributions of metic characters. Eventually, as if to thematize this absence, the Athenian speakers move to ban foreign residents from their imaginary city. This may be the reason Whitehead thinks the metic “holds a very minor place in Plato’s oeuvre until Laws.” The thinker, he continues, “had no time for metics in his best conceivable city as delineated in Republic (witness the acid comment at 563A).”[69] However we interpret the passage on metic-citizen blurring Whitehead invokes parenthetically above (I return to Book VIII in chapter five), it is worth pausing to consider the theoretical implications of such a sweeping assessment. Whether we think Book VIII is the only place metics appear in the Republic depends on what we think counts as a site of meaning in this text. Whitehead discusses Cephalus and Polemarchus, of course, but as we saw, he does not treat characterization or setting as zones of argumentation. The Republic is ultimately indifferent to metics on his account because—and this is crucial—there can be no metics in the callipolis. All residents of the callipolis are citizens, though they are not all rulers. And no foreigners are allowed to reside there permanently. I have been taking it for granted that the text of the Republic is not reducible to the proposals the characters offer for the callipolis; these moments of dialogue cannot be extracted from the textual conditions under which they are said. The Republic “is a narrated dialogue,” as Arlene Saxonhouse reminds, which means that it invites an interpretation of the membership rules in the context in which Socrates recalls them to have been relayed.[70] What is striking, then, is that the policy of restricting foreigners from settling in the callipolis is proposed under conditions that are enabled and marked by metoikia. The suggestions to equate residence with citizenship and restrict the movements of persons in and out of the callipolis arise in public. They are spoken during, and even inspired by, a trip to a metic’s home. What can we make of this loaded configuration? 

Silence is not unique to the non-citizen characters present that night, but the fact that it comes to characterize the metic host after Book I is intriguing, and it suggests Polemarchus’ withdrawal is a sign not of inadequacy but of nervousness, the sort of reticence we might expect from a host who suddenly finds himself held captive by a visitor, alerted to his precarious status, reminded that, even in his own home, he is in Athens always the real guest. [71] As we saw in the Ion, silence is not the same as lack or absence. In the Republic, Polemarchus’ silence is more like a pall hanging over the discussion. It is weighty, dense, and noticeable.

The question this raises in closing is not whether the Republic is uninterested in metics but in what sense it is interested in them; why they might constitute the consummate provocation of this text; what sorts of democratic problems they help figure; and how in conclusion we can take stock of the text’s efforts to imagine a polity in which the metic would be an unthinkable category—a possibility, it bears repeating, that is aired in metic company. We could conclude that the Republic is offering an apologia for nativism here, that it recommends the exclusion of foreigners because Plato is a Laconizer and, as any admirer of Spartan xenelasia might, he seeks a less ambivalent chauvinism than the sort Athenian autochthony enables. Such an assessment would surely fit with Plato’s reputation as a theorist of isolationism, essentialist difference, and general conservatism but it cannot account for—and may even occlude—the text’s interest in examining blood-based membership critically, in presenting what we will subsequently see is productively read as an exposé rahter than an endorsement. Rather than read the exclusion of immigrants as a lack of interest in metics or a commitment to nativism, I take it as Plato’s attempt to draw the reader’s (knowing) attention to the Athenian politics of this scene.

There are to be no metics in the callipolis not because the foreigner lacks an ability to act politically, quite the opposite in fact. The question of the foreigner’s inclusion in the callipolis is not presented as a question of blood or natural difference (or even territory). Whether one actualizes one’s political capacity is a question of power: one who is granted metic status is not vested with the privileges to live in Athens as an active and unqualified member of the polis. The Republic’s mode of presentation (the layered spaces, its dialogical form) makes it possible for us to see that it is the characters who decide whether to exclude metics from the callipolis. Their imaginary founding act anticipates what we will soon see more clearly: the metic’s inclusion-exclusion in Athens is similarly artificial. Their disfranchisement has political not natural origins. Socrates shows this to his quiet metic host just as Plato shows it to his Athenian audience. 

Let us consider once more that the figuration of one political reality (life in Piraeus) is the condition for the characters’ undertaking a similar act, the construction of “an example of a good city in speech” (472d–e) that rearranges their political order in Athens.[72] “The inquiry concerning the ‘paradigm of a good polis’ (427e),” as Eric Voegelin observes, “is organized as a play within the play.”[73] One mimetic act begets the other. And while this second “play” is most often called a founding, it is worth finally elaborating on what I have been suggesting all along—the rarely explored matter that “Plato casts Socrates in the role of oikistes” (a settler, colonizer, 378–379a).[74] The callipolis is imagined as the settlement of an already inhabited area; its founding will require the displacement of some people (541a). The reason for this displacement will turn out to be the same reason for the ban on immigrants. 

By now it might come as little surprise that Piraeus of all places should inspire Socrates to fashion himself a colonist. Plato’s writing, argues Nicole Loraux, exhibits an unusually pronounced concern with settlement. “Foundation and colonization are one and the same,” she says, “and the philologist intervenes opportunely with the statement that of all classical prose-writers, Plato boasts the greatest number of katoikizo [and oikizo] … He who envisions the polis in its essence would be an oikistes, then, before being deemed legislator or statesman.”[75] What exactly is opened up by this shift in emphasis from founding a polity in an empty place to founding a polity in a place already inhabited—for Piraeus, for Athens, for the making of a polis—is not immediately clear. The move sounds in any event like the act Plato himself undertakes: the idea for the callipolis emerges not in an empty space but in a home, in a city already populated.

As a way of tying these various threads together, let me introduce one more. Plato’s text fundamentally links the act of founding to the act of speaking. It is obvious that the Republic figures settlement as a matter of discourse but the sense in which it does this and the political theoretical effects that are produced by this framing are less so. “We are not poets at present,” Socrates declares abruptly in Book II, following a discussion of stories, “but settlers of a city” (oikistai poleos).[76] Founders set the patterns (tupous) according to which poets compose their stories (379a). They fix the framework within which all speech and imagination will occur henceforth. No wonder Socrates introduces the noble lie shortly after this scene. As the invention of that regulatory fiction will also attest, the founding of a polity involves more than the occupation of a physical place; it involves an initial act of imagination that forms the basis of all subsequent thought, what the callipolis residents will think is real, the conditions of possibility, the relations that hold between kinds, “the movement of each opposition,” and, most urgently for my purposes, the difference between insiders and outsiders.[77] 

The reason Socrates calls for the displacement of some inhabitants from the callipolis, then, has nothing to do with a pre-given and determinative difference. His reason concerns the very distinction established above between founders and poets. Persons over the age of ten must leave the callipolis at its founding and reside permanently in the countryside because their inculcation in the new order is impossible (541a). The patterns the founders establish for the settlement would never take hold; they would become “mere” stories and like autochthony myths, they would inform and regulate conduct but never fully or well enough to hide their own status as fictions. The only people impressionable enough to believe they are really born from the earth are children, children who do not meet adults with different ideas about the way membership lines are drawn. Immigrants from other polities, like the displaced inhabitants of the callipolis, not only lack the ability to internalize the noble lie. They can demonstrate its artifice and permanently alter the city’s culture. All the city’s residents help set expectations for membership, in other words, regardless of where they fall in the order of rule, just as the animal-keeper of Book VI suggested. 

“Banishing elements of a population from a city to the surrounding countryside was not without historic parallel,” G. R. F. Ferrari notes, “and in the Greek world in general populations were relocated with what to us would seem alarming frequency.”[78] The practice was used in Sparta, Ferrari adds, which had a “core of citizens surrounded by non-citizen subordinates in the villages and countryside.”[79] Rather than divide its population physically, Ferrari argues, Athens encouraged citizens of “all social ranks” to “engage in a full range of commercial, agricultural and other activities likely to produce wealth.”[80] And yet cohabitation and collaboration do not, on their own, render stratification inefficacious. They might instead give rise to an insinuating kind of membership and to an increased fear of disorder—the justification for more policing of boundaries not less.

It is worth revisiting in this light the infrequency of Socrates’ visits to Piraeus, the theme of Book I usually taken to confirm the distance of Piraeus, its difference and unsavoriness. According to Cephalus, Socrates stays away because he does not feel at home there. That will not do now that Cephalus is too old to visit Athens, so he tells his guest to “come and be” (sunisthi) with the young men in his company from here on out, to make them his companions by arriving and departing so regularly that, as Adam translates phoitao, he will make the metic home in Piraeus his “resort.” He requests that his Athenian guest regard them as (hos) very good friends (para philous) and kin (oikeious). Socrates complies (328d).[81]

We are told later in the Republic that the greatest evil for any city is what tears it apart and turns it into many cities instead of one (462b). To avoid this stasis, Socrates suggests that every time the guardians of the callipolis meet someone, they should assume they are encountering a family member (463d). “It would be ridiculous for them merely to use the names of relationships, as a verbal convention, without the corresponding behavior,” for what one “speaks” about these relations is also what one “thinks” (463e–464a).[82] Cephalus’ invitation that Socrates treat the metic’s home as his own and regard the metic family as if they were kin anticipates the noble lie not only because it invokes an idiom of kinship but also because it invokes kinship as an idiom. Who better to introduce the artifice and political utility of blood than a metic, and a successful one at that? The passage calls attention to the act of speech that makes some kin, which is to say, it focuses once again on the Athenian decision that renders some residents autochthonous and others not. It would seem that, for Cephalus, being “like” a citizen is not enough.

Democracies make a prior distinction about who counts as kin. In Athens, those equal before the law are brothers because equality in birth (isogonia) is said to bestow their civic equality (isonomia). The trip to Piraeus muddies this distinction and sets into motion the citizen/metic hierarchy it undergirds. Cephalus suggests the appellation of kin ought to reflect practice, not the other way around. Socrates would be his kin because they would do more of what they do already: they would live together.

NB: Diacritics available in the original book chapter.


Notes

[1] Based on epigraphic evidence, Whitehead (1986: 83) observes that Piraeus had the second highest number of metic residents in Attica. While metics tended not to live in rural demes but were scattered across many “urban and suburban” ones, Whitehead estimates that almost nineteen percent of all metics lived in Piraeus. Among Piraeus’ additional associations is democratic power in the form of the fleet. Aristotle remarks on its strong democratic connotations in Pol. 1303b7. See also Lysias 12 and Plutarch’s Life of Themistocles (19.2–4). For a historical account of the Piraeus and its Athenian significance, see Von Reden 1995: 26; Von Reden 1998; and Garland 2001.

[2] Honig, for instance, wonders in passing why “the house of a foreign merchant” is the setting for the dialogue but does not pursue the issue. Her answer to whether Plato means to “imply that justice, or perhaps philosophical dialogue itself, is occasioned by engagement with foreignness” is yes, but she understands the function of the “foreign” as supplying for Socrates a figurative foreignness that enables an outsider perspective on the city he is criticizing (Honig 2001: 3 and 124n8).

[3] Plato’s chauvinism and anti-democratic sentiment are taken for granted and (uneasily) brought together in Fracisco L. Lisi and Gabriele Cornelli’s assessment: “His writings show a clear rejection of the Athenian democratic regime as it existed in the fifth century BC, but his own attitude is one of an unequivocal Athenian patriotism, and he even considers democracy to be the system that corresponds to the Athenian nature (cf. Menexenus 238c5–239a4)” (Cornelli and Lisi 2010: 6). 

[4] Pace Irigaray 1985.

[5] Seldom noted is the presence of three quiet citizens. They are Cleitophon, a supporter of Thrasymachus who speaks once and early on (340b); Charmantides, a wealthy, politically active contemporary of Plato’s; and Nikeratus, son of the wealthy and prominent democratic leader Nikias (327c, 328b). Like the metics in the house, they watch from the sidelines. Besides the slave, whose speech provokes the encounter on Munychia, all those Socrates reports to be in attendance are free, including Lysias, the metic speech-writer who is also Polemarchus’ brother. The disparity of the group at once underscores the differences in formal standing and resists this level of analysis altogether. For a historical account of the figures in the dialogue, see Nails 2002. Blondell 2002 discusses the Republic’s characters in depth. 

[6] As Cohen (2000: 21) remarks, the Republic does not confirm a “sundered dichotomy of politai and foreigners” but portrays “the metic hosts as ‘friends and virtually kinsmen’ of their citizen guests, an absence of social differentiation recurrent throughout Plato’s dialogues.” In stressing the intermingling in this scene, however, we should not assume that difference in juridical or political status ceases to matter in the dialogue. Consider as well that Cohen’s reference above is to philous te kai panu oikeious (328d6), a line I read at the close of the chapter to suggest Plato is making a claim about the link between citizenship and kinship. How the lines between friends and enemies and insiders and outsiders are drawn constitutes a central matter of contestation in the Republic.

[7] References to the Greek of the Republic are from Plato 2013. Translations of the Republic are by Tom Griffith (Plato 2000) unless otherwise noted. I have also consulted Rowe’s translation (Plato 2012b). 

[8] Gottesman 2014: 28. On the integration of metics in the agora and the space of Athens more generally, see also Mansouri (2011: ch. 3).

[9] Plato’s dialogue dramatizes this blending when it depicts citizens, metics, and slaves sharing spaces. As I mention in ch. six, citizens, metics, and slaves also worked side by side as craftsmen, as was the case in the building of the Erechtheion (R. Osborne 2010: 89).

[10] Von Reden argues that the Piraeus “seems to have been used in what has been called the ‘rhetoric of otherness’—that is, the emphasis of the cultural limits of citizenship, which were essential for the self-consciousness of the Athenian polis” (Von Reden 1995: 32–33).

[11] This is Manville’s gloss on the needs and political functions of the polis as articulated by Aristotle (1990: 41).

[12] I explore these readings of the dialogue in the next section.

[13] On the barrenness of Attic soil, see Thuc. 1.2.5–6. Bresson explores the agrarian dimension of Athenian colonization and notes the city’s “external dependency” on fertile territories was the effect of colonization: “The desire to take over external territories that produced grain, or to have access to grain trade routes, was certainly a powerful motive for Athens’ foreign adventures in the second half of the sixth century” (Bresson 2016: 410).

[14] I discuss the Funeral Oration in ch. five.

[15] The expression is used to describe the imperial activities Jane Austen refers to in Mansfield Park. What makes Austen’s uses of empire casual and stressed, according to Said, is that life in Mansfield Park is sustained by this “overseas sustenance” (1993: 89). The approach Said takes in Culture and Imperialism is instructive for a reading of the Republic, in which Plato’s allusions to metoikia, mobility, and trade establish the dramatic world of the text without explicitly referring to these Athenian dynamics. For the point is not only that “allusions to the facts of empire” have an outsized, if quiet, presence in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British novel but that to overlook these figurations would be to further marginalize the already-circumscribed representation of “inferior classes and races” in these texts and the constitutive relation they call attention to between the so-called center and periphery (1993: 80). 

[16] Seth Benardete (1989: 9) refers to the beginning of the Republic (327a1–328c4) as a “thwarted ascent,” but I pluralize it here to capture the multiplicity of failure readings I find in the scholarship on Book I.

[17] In 1839 K. F. Hermann proposed that Book I did not belong to the Republic but was instead part of a different dialogue by Plato on justice that had yet to be found. On the issue of the opening’s complete disavowal, see Charles Kahn (1992: 131), who recounts and argues against the long tradition of reading the opening as a separate enterprise; see also Reeve 1988: 3–4. Nevertheless, a long gap seems to have separated the composition of Book I from the composition of Books II–X. Plato had already written the first book by the time he opened the Academy around 383 BCE (though this date is debated). “Between the school’s opening and his second visit to Syracuse in 367,” writes Danielle Allen, Plato probably composed the rest of the dialogue. See Allen 2013: 166n13. Reasons for dating the Academy to 383 (not 387) are explored in Nails 2002: 248. This is also the date adopted by Allen 2013.

[18] Vlastos 1991: 250–251.

[19] The point is made with regard to Cephalus who, despite departing midway through Book I, is said to help the argument along by introducing themes like piety, which plays a crucial role in Socrates’ delineation of justice later on (331a4). See Benardete 1989: 15.

[20] Steinberger 1996 names Cephalus as a metic in the first line of his essay but never explores the issue.

[21] Monoson 2000: 215n21.

[22] Blondell 2002: 166.

[23] Blondell adds, “[The name] Polemarchus may also be read as a reminder of his metic status, since polemarchus was the title of the Athenian official responsible for metic affairs” (Blondell 2002: 166n4).

[24] Compare to Nails (2002: 84) who argues that, despite Cephalus’ wealth, he was a metic and “should not be confused with the aristocratic citizens with their inherited wealth or ‘old money.’”

[25] Whitehead 1977: 19.

[26] Whitehead 1977: 19.

[27] Whitehead 1977: 18. On the importance of metics’ economic contributions to Athens, see Adak 2003.

[28] Wijma 2014 shares this view.

[29] See Whitehead 1977: 129. See also ch. five.

[30] Whitehead 1977: 19.

[31] Dietz 2012: 279.

[32] I borrow this language from Whitehead’s reading of Lysias, who portrays his father in his speech Against Eratosthenes (Whitehead 1977: 58).

[33] On Greek colonization and its rituals, see Dougherty 1993 and Tsetskhladze 2008. For a discussion of Cephalus and the founding of Thurii, see Monoson 2012: 165–167; Nails 2002.

[34] Dietz 2012: 286.

[35] This is an inversion of what Manville says about Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Manville 1997: 16).

[36] Ferrari (2007: 46n.17) notes that these clubs became “notorious hives of oligarchic conspiracy.”

[37] This is my translation.

[38] The idea overlaps with Honig’s argument that “the foreigner” is often figured “as a device that allows regimes to import from outside (and then, often, to export back to outside) some specific and much-needed but also potentially dangerous virtue, talent, perspective, gift, or quality that they cannot provide for themselves (or that they cannot admit they have)” (Honig 2001: 3).

[39] Insofar as this is a description of the kind of mimesis that occurs between metics and citizens, we might ask whether citizens desire to mirror metics. 

[40] In the Gorgias (521a–522a), Socrates describes the dynamic in Athenian courts along similar lines: like a pastry chef before a group of children, the prosecutor who feeds his jurors pleasantries succeeds at persuading them.

[41] Schofield 2006: 65.

[42] We could consider silence a version of this, too.

[43] Among the many uses of foreignness Honig finds operating in democratic theory is the foreigner who reinvigorates the country’s institutions and values by choosing to become naturalized. See Honig 2001: 3–8, esp. 4.

[44] This is my translation.

[45] Rancière bases this understanding of Plato’s view of the sea primarily on a passage from the Laws, however, in which the Athenian character elaborates on the specific political conditions of—and risks borne by—a city on the sea (705a–b). He extends the character’s views to the Republic. See Rancière 2007: 1, 2. Von Reden also uses the Laws to claim that Plato “saw a fundamental contradiction between land and sea” and believed the sea “had negative effects on the polis” (Von Reden 1995: 24). The sea carries further associations with the democratic resistance and the oligarchs’ decision to turn the Pnyx away from the sea.  

[46] Von Reden 1995: 28.

[47] Von Reden 1995: 29.

[48] As Worman (2014: 202) explains, landscapes in ancient Greek texts “are not abstract spaces in any true sense” but deeply rooted in the ground of civic practices, organized and assigned value in relation to recognizable transactions in familiar places. 

[49] Rehm 2002: 23.

[50] On Plato as a prose dramatist concerned with both the performance of the dialogues and the question of performability, see Charalabopoulos 2012. See also Blondell 2002.

[51] This movement is often described as a theoria, a journey or religious pilgrimage (Nightingale 1995).

[52] For Ferrari, the “background” described by a narrator—what the Piraeus amounts to in the Republic—has a different effect on a reader than a background conveyed by a character’s direct speech (about it). The latter, he thinks, draws greater attention from the reader. In the Phaedrus, he adds, “the background will not stay where it belongs. It becomes … a direct cause of the conversational action rather than, as one would expect, at most an indirect influence on its course” (Ferrari 1987: 3–4).

[53] By the time Plato wrote in the fourth century, Von Reden (1995: 26) notes, the harbor was “no longer primarily associated with naval power” (and empire) “but with commerce.” Notwithstanding this “shift,” both empire and trade concern themselves with the outsider; whether or not we mean the wholly external or the foreign that is permanently within, the outsider functions to signify a specific kind of Athenian dependence.

[54] Von Reden 1995: 29.

[55] Von Reden 1995: 27.

[56] Von Reden 1995: 27.

[57] Schofield (2006: 25) notes that in the Apology, Plato “construes his philosophizing as a public service” and that in the Crito, “conversely, it is he who is portrayed as the beneficiary of the city.” From both senses, we arrive at a reciprocal notion of citizenship, in which Socrates gives to and takes from the city. Applying this to the Republic, we find that Socrates stretches the bounds of citizenship (or public service) to include not just the activity of philosophizing but a more expansive notion of membership. He engages metics in conversation, and the expectation is that he (and the city) will have something to gain from this even if only because they share the polis. 

[58] Wijma 2014: 130–131.

[59] The inclusion of metics in the tending of the hiera is the focus of Wijma (2014). Her study makes a strong historical argument for seeing metic religious participation as indicating (qualified) membership in the polis. She considers the possibilities, long dismissed by scholars, that phratries might have accepted Thracian orgeōnes on account of their management of Bendis’ cult and shrine in Piraeus.

[60] See Pache 2001: 8. Wijma (2014) argues that, despite the separate parades, there was only one group of orgeōnes, unlike Pache who suggests the groups never fused.

[61] Wijma 2014: 142.

[62] Wijma 2014: 155, 142.

[63] Pache’s interest lies in assessing the stability of the barbarian marker, but she concludes, surprisingly, that the “notional boundary between Greek and barbarian” escapes slippage (Pache 2001: 9).

[64] Von Reden 1995: 32.

[65] See Adam’s commentary on the first lines of the Republic in Plato 1963: 2n5. 

[66] Wijma 2014: 10.

[67] Derrida 1997: 94.

[68] An interesting parallel exists in the making of funerary monuments, a practice that “ascribed status and value, and established expectations” (R. Osborne 2010: 263) and yet, in the case of metics, did not emphasize their de-privileged status. In his discussion of monuments figuring metic women, Osborne notes that “the pressures on the metic community to conform to local practice, and indeed the expectations of sculptural workshops, will have ensured that metic monuments were shaped in the image of citizen monuments” (R. Osborne 2010: 263n51).

[69] Whitehead 1977: 129.

[70] Saxonhouse 2009: 730. 

[71] Derrida (2000: 123–125) describes inverted guest-host relations at work between Oedipus and Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus

[72] This is my translation of paradeigma epoioumen logoi agathēs poleōs.

[73] Voegelin 2000: 88.

[74] While Voegelin translates the Greek as “founder” here, he is among the few readers to make the immediate connection to colonization. See Voegelin 2000: 89.

[75] Loraux 2000: 122.

[76] This is my translation.

[77] Although Derrida is referring to phusis here, he means it in the regulatory sense that I discuss the noble lie in the next chapter. The comment comes from a larger discussion of the Republic and the Menexenus in The Politics of Friendship; see Derrida 1997: 90.

[78] Ferrari 2000: 251n24. 

[79] Ferrari 2000: v.

[80] Ferrari 2000: xv.

[81] Blondell 2002: 167–168.

[82] The “Phoenician” noble lie uses a kinship idea to describe citizen relations, but it does not say that the citizens are “born of the earth” as “brothers.” It issues rather that they regard each other as such (414c–e). The Republic’s myth models a proscription for conduct, not a criterion for or description of membership. 

 

 

 

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