Introduction to Plato: Foreshadowing and Prefiguring

Plato is probably the first author to develop the literary notion of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is contained in the very opening of his most famous work, The Republic. I want to explore, and explain, Plato’s foreshadowing and why it’s such a clever tactic and one that, when recognized by the reader, enriches the reading of Plato and his works. I will primarily focus on the Republic as it is his most well-known and widely read dialogue.

The Republic is a most fascinating work, deep and rich, which I have a brief 8,000-word commentary over which can be read here. But the beginning of the work sets the literary structure of foreshadowing perfectly (327a-c):

[Socrates]: I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and, at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time. Now, in my opinion, the procession of the native inhabitants was fine; but the one the Thracians conducted was no less fitting a show. After we had prayed and looked on, we went off toward town.

Catching sight of us from afar as we were pressing homewards, Polemarchus, son of Cephalus, ordered his slave boy to run after us and order us to wait for him. The boy took hold of my cloak from behind and said, “Polemarchus orders you to wait.”

And I turned around and asked him where his master was. “He is coming up behind,” he said, “just wait.”

“Of course we’ll wait,” said Glaucon.

A moment later Polemarchus came along with Adeimantus, Glaucon’s brother, Niceratus, son of Nicias, and some others—apparently from the procession. Polemarchus said, “Socrates, I guess you two are hurrying to get away to town.”

“That’s not a bad guess,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “do you see how many of us there are?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then,” he said, “either prove stronger than these men or stay here.”

Isn’t there still one other possibility.” I said, “our persuading you that you must let us go?

“Could you really persuade,” he said, “if we don’t listen?” ([emphasis my own]).

Plato’s ingenious opening and foreshadowing, which I emphasized in my highlighting, establishes—in the opening page of the Republic—the themes that Plato is going to be discussing throughout the work. First is the social nature of man and the social responsibility, or engagement, of philosophy. This is exhibited in the fact that Socrates and Glaucon went to a festival together. While this particular festival is said to be the first-time performance, festivals were a common public activity in the ancient world and remain so in more traditional parts of the world and among Catholic parishes (which put on festivals for the community). The participation in the festival, as well as the comradery of Socrates and Glaucon, foreshadows the question of man as a social creature which is much discussed throughout the pages of the Republic.

The second foreshadowing is when Polemarchus orders his slave boy to order Socrates and Glaucon to wait. Attached to this being forced to wait for Polemarchus is the declaration, for Socrates to leave, to “prove stronger than these men or stay here.” This is foreshadowing Thrasymachus, most obviously, but the general contestation between Socrates and the other sophists—including Glaucon—as to what philosophy is. Here the third, and most critical, foreshadowing appears. “Isn’t there still one other possibility,” Socrates says, “our persuading you that you must let us go.”

Dialectically tied together is the contest between force (or strength) and persuasion (or reason). Immediately we see who the arbiter of reason is and who are the arbiters of force are: Socrates and the sophists respectively. By tying the forced stalling and proving stronger with the other possibility of persuasion, Plato foreshadows much of the dynamism and dialectical tension that runs through the dialogue: The contest between the sophists who advocate the employment of force to achieve individual ends and Socrates who advocates for understanding through reason/persuasion.

Being aware of this makes one appreciate the greatness of Plato even more. The entire order and movement of the dialogue is set up from the beginning. Moreover, recognizing this foreshadowing allows one to penetrate deeper and find deeper meaning in the text when re-reading Plato. Without a preface, Plato uses the opening lines as a sort of preface. Plato informs the reader in the highlighted opening I have provided, what the rest of the dialogue is about: The social nature of man; the task of philosophy; the tension between force and persuasion, between brute strength and eloquent reason.

This awareness of what Plato has set up and is foreshadowing, allows the attentive reader a new lens into the dialogues of Socrates and the other philosophers. One also sees how the dialogues play upon these themes established to be discussed in greater detail as the work unfolds. One may also be able to be better attentive to how force, strength, is wielded even in the post-Thrasymachus sophists like Adeimantus and Glaucon in their discourses even though, for instance, the “Ring of Gyges” doesn’t appear to be about the use of force at first glance (even though it is).

One finds Plato’s use of foreshadowing throughout his dialogues. In Symposium, for example, his great dialogue on Eros and knowledge of Eros, Glaucon rushes to Apollodorus and says that he was “looking” for him (172a) so “to find out how their speeches on love went” (172b). In the opening paragraphs of Symposium Plato foreshadows the whole of Symposium: Eros as searching (like Glaucon searching for Apollodorus) so to know what love is (Glaucon’s wanting to know how the speeches on love went). The rest of the dialogue provides the answers to what searching and love are which were foreshadowed to us at the very beginning of the work. (There is a lot of satirization and irony in this dialogue too.)

Another one of the best examples of hidden foreshadowing is in Timaeus. The dialogue opens with Socrates restating his thoughts on the ideal city (from The Republic) and with a short speech by Critias on the political which includes the famous story of Atlantis. Plato is telling us, in these speeches, that Timaeus’ speech is really about the political (as he reveals by 87b near the end of the dialogue). However, the lengthy discourse on nature, telos, the cosmos, the Demiurge, reason and necessity, are all building to a political reality: Without a foundation for knowledge and nature, the very project of the political will fail.

Plato, in most of his dialogues, brilliantly foreshadows for us what the dialogue will discuss and what is to come; but we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear to pick up on the master and his craft.

3 thoughts on “Introduction to Plato: Foreshadowing and Prefiguring

    • Great; if anything, perhaps this short series on Plato will help you appreciate him on purely literary levels if nothing else! I remember giving talks to fellow students at Yale about the genius Plato’s ability to foreshadow and prefigure; had them hooked.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I teach Plato a lot because he is simply unavoidable in philosophy. But I just don’t like transcendance as a concept. I prefer realism and immanence. Nevertheless he is a genius in philosophy

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