Ruling Passion: The Erotics of Statecraft in Platonic Political Philosophy


Ruling Passion is the only book-length study of tyranny, statesmanship, and civic virtue in three major Platonic dialogues, the Georgias, the Symposium, and the Republic. It is also the first extended interpretation of eros as the key to Plato’s understanding of both the depths of human vice and the heights of human aspirations for virtue and happiness. Through his detailed commentary and eloquent insights on the three dialogues, Waller Newell demonstrates how, for Plato, tyranny is a misguided longing for erotic satisfaction that can be corrected by the education of eros toward the proper objects if its pleasure: civic virtue and philosophy. In unfolding these reflections through his analysis, Newell also demonstrates a rich and deep grasp of the complexities of the tyrannical personality and countless new insights into the dramatic dimensions of Plato’s dialogues. Written in a clear and engaging style, Ruling Passion will be of interest to philosophers, political theorists, classicists, historians, and anyone generally intrigued by the ironies, mysteries, and longings of human nature and psychology.


"This extremely interesting book contains a subtle and finely detailed reflection on one of the main problems in Plato: the relation between eros and thumos (spiritedness). It makes a multiplicity of observations that are at once original and yet so plausible that one is tempted to ask at countless points in the argument: How could it have been otherwise? There are sections of unusual brilliance devoted to the character and pertinence of Callicles to each of the three main dialogues studied by Newell, and there is an unusually brilliant commentary on the Leontius passage in the Republic. We have here one of the best books on Plato to have appeared in a number of years, and part of its excellence is that it draws us into the dialectic."

   - Stanley Rosen, The American Political Science Review



"A penetrating study in Platonic political philosophy and sharply stimulating interpretation of major Platonic dialogues."
   -Thomas Pangle, University of Texas at Austin



"RULING PASSION is a masterful reading of Plato, and it is also the most complex and nuanced analysis in our day of political ambition and the theoretical challenges it raises. Through the character of Callicles in the Gorgias, Newell captures both the idealism and the selfishness intertwined in political ambition. Their deep connection, he shows, sheds a harsh but revealing light on both eros in the Symposium and the tripartite human soul in the Republic. This portrayal of “the problem of Callicles” deserves to haunt all thinking on these topics for the next decade or so."
- Henry Higuera, St. John’s College Annapolis

"Newell shows Socrates to be the supreme educator of the soul, and Plato to be the teacher par excellence of philosophic statesmanship. Novices and experts alike can learn much from Newell’s original and deeply insightful analysis. As Socrates dons the lovely disguise of Diotima or parades the beautiful Images of Philosophy before his interlocutors to appeal to their desire for wholeness, so does Newell’s masterly account of a philosophically guided statesmanship appeal to our desire to know what such a way of life might truly entail."
- Lisa Pace Vetter, Perspectives on Political Science

"Newell’s interpretations of the well-known texts are clearly spelled out and thought-provoking. What stand out in Newell’s pages are fresh readings of the dialogues. One should be grateful for a book that pushes us to the limits of Plato’s texts."
- Philosophy in Review


"Newell has written an excellent interpretive study. Newell’s lucid prose is an intellectual delight to read. His own insightful phrases and rich vocabulary bear witness to the dramatic nuances of the dialogues at every stage."
- Religious Studies Review


"Start with the title. Ruling Passion announces the layers of irony in its study of Platonic political philosophy by the very ambiguity of the title phrase… Newell explores these complex and densely layered themes of eros, tyranny, civic virtue and philosophy through detailed and closely argued analyses of three of Plato’s most important middle period dialogues… Newell’s book provides distinctively insightful readings of the dialogues under consideration…His central thesis is that these dialogues, each in its own particular way, delineate the contours of the education of the passions (eros [love] and thumos [spirit]) away from physical satisfaction and aggression and toward civic virtue and philosophy… The analysis here follows the lead of Leo Strauss in arguing that the Republic “abstracts” from eros. Newell, however, pushes that argument quite a bit further and in a number of different directions. On his account, eros and thumos are first separated, and eros is repressed… His book abounds with astute political, philosophical, and especially psychological observations."
- Chris Rocco, The Review of Politics

"Newell’s emphasis on the connections between the three dialogues and his deep excavation of the meaning and control of primordial and transcendental longing will reward the careful and patient reader. Another particular virtue of this book is the extent to which Newell is sensitive to the fact that Plato is quite aware of the criticisms that could be leveled against his calls for channeling eros and thumos. Throughout the book, Newell calls attention to the ambivalent nature of Plato’s proposals. The most famous example of this, of course, is Callicles’ refusal to continue the discussion with Socrates in the Gorgias, indicating Plato’s awareness of a fundamental problem with the dialogic and philosophic attempt to convince Callices of the virtue of proper civic participation. This ability to call his own arguments into question, says Newell, actually strengthens the arguments themselves, through having been through such a severe test."
- Jeff Miller, Political Theory



"He argues that while the erotic longing for transcendence always threatens the horizon of political life, Socratic philosophizing through dialogue and friendship is an intermediate ground on which a truly political philosophy is possible. Newell emphasizes the erotic quality of the Socratic “solution” to this problem, and offers a carefully detailed assessment of the tensions that persist in it…"
   - Denise Schaeffer and Mary P. Nichols Polity


"Ruling Passion can (and does) claim originality in tracing its subject through Plato’s Gorgias, Symposium, and Republic. Its thesis, however, lies in the distinctive tradition of Leo Strauss: for the statesman whose erotics N. has in mind is, first and foremost, the tyrant, not the philosopher king, and Eros is the god of his hubris. Desire, which in simpler accounts of Plato’s psychology is characterized as an irreducible attraction to particular pleasures, is here underpinned by yearning of a different order altogether: for a world unstructured by the subtleties of Plato’s metaphysics, a Presocratic cosmos built on “chance motions and the unstructured energies of phusis.” Allied with the “primordialist” outlook to which this gives rise comes an ugly, Nietzschean ethics as well: the “spontaneous passion for mastery”, for tyrannical self-assertion in an inherently selfish universe. Plato, of course, is tough on tyranny, and tough on the causes of tyranny but there is a limit to what he can do. In the Symposium, he attempts to refine eros into something more “sober”and ultimately, he thinks, more satisfying. But by the time he wrote the Republic, he had come to believe that things are not even this simple: for eros in the Republic has a natural ally in thumos, which shares its primordialist leanings (indeed, takes from it its direction towards “specific substantive objects”). In this case, Plato’s only solution to the problem of tyranny is to break the bond between these two, to realign thumos with reason and employ it against its old ally. But while this may work in the short term, it can never be a perfect remedy: thumos remains a hearty type, easily bored in the company of the intellect; and its fidgeting ultimately causes the breakdown of the order so carefully contrived. Indeed, the inevitability of this breakdown leads N. to argue that the Republic as a whole (and at least qua work of political philosophy) is purely “heuristic, pointing to the likely obstacles in the way of achieving…pure synonymity between reason and convention.” … Ruling Passion is a fast-paced, action-packed read: as stimulating and provoking as it is unlikely to meet with universal agreement."
   - George Boys-Stones, The Classical Review