The Perils of Uglytown: Studies in Structural Misanthropology from Plato to Rembrandt

The Perils of Uglytown: Studies in Structural Misanthropology from Plato to Rembrandt

The Perils of Uglytown: Studies in Structural Misanthropology from Plato to Rembrandt

The Perils of Uglytown: Studies in Structural Misanthropology from Plato to Rembrandt


With characteristic wit, Harry Berger, Jr., brings his flair for close reading to texts and images across two millennia that illustrate what he calls "structural misanthropology." Beginning with a novel reading of Plato, Berger emphasizes Socrates's self-acknowledged failures. The dialogues, he shows, offer up, only to dispute, a misanthropic polis. The Athenian city-state, they worry, is founded on a social order motivated by apprehension--both the desire to take and the fear of being taken. In addition to suggesting new political
and philosophical dimensions to Platonic thought, Berger's attention to rhetorical practice offers novel ways of parsing the dialogic method itself.

In the book's second half, Berger revisits and revises his earlier accounts of Italian humanism, Elizabethan drama, and Dutch painting. Berger shows how structural misanthropology helps us to read the competitive practices that characterize Renaissance writing and art, whether in Machiavelli's constitutional prostheses, Shakespeare's pageants of humiliation, or the elbow jabs of Dutch portraiture.


The Perils of Uglytown develops a cultural concept that gets explored first in a series of chapters on Plato’s dialogues and then in studies of early modern authors and artists ranging from L. B. Alberti to Shakespeare and Rembrandt. The concept, which I call structural misanthropology, is a variation on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of structural anthropology. In Part I, “Misanthropology in Plato’s Dialogues,” I argue that the society Thucydides and Plato represent is an apprehensive society: a society founded on the misanthropic perception of the social order as a system of relationships motivated primarily by apprehension—that is, by the prehensive desire to take and the apprehensive fear of being taken. I use this term advisedly because prehension is the act of grasping, seizing by the hand, and I connect it to the handwork involved in the culture of inscription based on handwriting (cheiro-graphē).

Part I centers on the ways in which Plato develops the concept in his depictions of the dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors. It shows in detail how Socrates both articulates and deconstructs their wish that the Athenian city-state (the polis) they imagine could be an ideal city, a Kallipolis. The particular dialogues explored in this section are Lysis, Crito, Phaedo, The Republic, and Timaeus. At the heart of Plato’s account of structural misanthropology is a critique of pleonexia, which means not only “having more” (a literal translation) but wanting to have more, wanting to be bigger, better, superior. If you suffer from pleonexia, you never have enough because you aspire to total and immortal self-sufficiency even if that involves draining the rest of the world of power, wealth, pleasure, and being.

Part I of The Perils of Uglytown also shows how the dialogues dramatize a defensive side to pleonexia. They depict a society full of members who are aware of competing with one another, and who would not want to have others do to them what they would like to do to others. Pleonexia produces the anxiety that compels them to act according to the Brazen . . .

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