The Republic by Plato (427 – 347 B.C.) The Republic by Plato (427 – 347 B.C.) Book Overveiw (The Republic is an examination of the “Good Life”; the harmony reached by applying pure reason and justice. The ideas and arguments presented center on the social conditions of an ideal republic – those that lead each individual to the most perfect possible life for him. Socrates Plato’s early mentor in real life – moderates the discussion throughout, presumably as Plato’s mouthpiece. Through Socrates’ powerful and brilliant questions and summations on a series of topics, the reader comes to understand what Plato’s model society would look like.) Socrates was returning to Athens after attending a festival, when he met Polemarchos on the road. Upon Polemarchos’ insistence, Socrates accompanied him to his home to meet his friends and family. As they entered the courtyard, Polemarchos’ elderly father, Cephalus, greeted them and launched into a discussion of old age.
Socrates seemed pleased to converse with the older man: “It seems right to enquire of them, as if they traversed a long journey which perhaps we will have to traverse.” The discussion then turned to the question of “justice,” or “doing the right thing.” Polemarchos suggested that “to give back what is owed to each is just.” However, Socrates countered that to return a weapon to a friend who had gone mad was not just, but the opposite of justice. Still another man, Thrasymachos, offered his definition of justice: “I declare justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.” But Socrates, again by logical argument, dismissed this definition: Since rulers are fallible, they often make decisions that are not in their best interest, thus requiring their subjects to do the wrong, unjust thing. But, according to Socrates, “right living,” dutiful service to others, and doing that which is “appropriate” to the person and situation are the prerequisites to individual happiness – and prerequisites for avoiding chaos within a republic. Still another in the group voiced his objections to Socrates’ statement that justice is a virtue and injustice a vice; Glaucon was not entirely convinced that justice possessed any intrinsic value. Socrates began his examination of this concept by turning his focus from the individual to the city: people gathered together in cities in order that each individual might perform the task best suited to his or her nature. From this point, Socrates delineated the various classes of people in a citystate, from the peasant and beggar to the highest kings and rulers.
He then posed a question: “Do you not think, that one who is to be guardian-like (a leader) needs something more besides a spirited temper, and that is to be in his nature a lover of wisdom?” Socrates also wondered aloud how these traits could be instilled into potential leaders: “How shall our guardians be trained and educated?” Socrates proceeded to weigh the numerous types of education and experience demanded of a good ruler, and divided education into two main areas: music (in this case, all the arts) and gymnastics (athletics). Fables, he observed, were the first “music” that children hear, and children are “easily molded” by these stories. Socrates recommended that “we must set up a censorship over the fable-makers, and approve any good fable they make, and disapprove the bad.” Many classical fables and myths were to be censored as “false” because they portrayed the gods in an unfavorable light. Children “must never hear at all that the gods war against other gods and plot and fight,” he said, for when they grow older, they will accept this behavior as virtuous. Instead, children should hear the “noblest things told in the best fables for encouraging virtue.” He concluded: “God is simple and true in word and deed,” and this must be held up as an example to children, especially to those who may grow up to become rulers.
Socrates extended his censorship argument to include craftsmen: artists and sculptors must be restrained from deformed, ignoble, morbid or “imaginary” creations, “to stop their implanting this spirit so evil and dissolute.” Craftsmen “who by good natural powers can track out the nature of the beautiful and the graceful,” should share their gifts so that young people would dwell in “wholesome country.” A delicate balance had to be maintained between gymnastic and “musical” education; an over-emphasis on gymnastics produced “savagery and hardness” in a person, while too much music spawned excessive “softness and gentleness.” The two arts “may be fitted together in concord, by being strained and slackened to the proper point.” Now that the thrust of the future citizens’ education was established, Socrates asked: “Which among these are to rule, and which to be ruled?” He then answered his own question, asserting that there were several ways of discovering those best suited to rule. He vaguely suggested that a true guardian would be diligent in keeping watch “on enemies without and friends within,” and in seeing that no injury befell the city or its inhabitants. Of the three classes of citizens – the merchant class (the lowest of the low in that their primary purpose is greedy consumption), the high-spirited soldier class (quite like “animals”), and the high- minded, more human-minded philosopher – the philosopher would act most just and civil, and show the most ideal “harmony” in ruling over the passions and appetites of the other two classes. To maintain harmony, true guardiankings”must live in common” with their subjects, and must “dare not have any dealings with gold or silver.” Rather, the city should supply all their needs. Expanding these arguments to include the entire population of the city, Socrates preached that there should neither be great wealth nor great poverty; both extremes breed evil in men. Also, “as long as the growing city is willing to remain a unity, so big let it grow but no further.” Each citizen must work in a profession fitted to his talents, and work with his neighbor in unity for the growth of his state. Socrates next turned to the elements which make a city-state virtuous.
In both the ruler and in the state, these principles are as follows: “Temperance and courage and intelligence, and here is a thing which makes it possible for [these] three to be there at all”: justice. Socrates went on to compare a just city to a just person. Three elements combined make up the individual soul: reason, emotion, and desire. A person”must have all three parts in tune within him, highest [reason], and lowest [desire], and middle [emotion].” Before the master philosopher could delve deeper into the two types of state – the just and the unjust – Glaucon interrupted to ask if Socrates truly believed that such a virtuous city was possible. “There is one change which I think would make the transformation,” Socrates replied. As philosophers become “kings in our cities ..
political power and intellectual wisdom will be joined in one.” But until this happened, Socrates saw no end to the troubles suffered worldwide. Furthermore, for a man to be a genuine philosopher, he must pursue truth for an entire lifetime. This pursuit, Socrates affirmed, impels him from a state of darkness to a state of light. just as objects in the shadows are more difficult to see while in sunlight they are easily discerned, so “truth” cannot be seen with eyes that are dark, but only through eyes of “understanding” (comprehending logical and mathematical concepts) and through “exercising reason” (dialectical thought). By experiencing “pure ideas,” a man discovers the higher ideals such as”perfect beauty, justice and goodness.” To escape the dark “shadows of the images” of reality, lie must free himself from his fetters, turn to the “real light,” and climb out of his cave of ignorance.
Initially, the light of truth might hurt his eyes, but soon he will become accustomed to its brightness and multiple colors. Eventually, he will see everything – relationships, the soul, the human mind – through “new” eyes and use reason to understand all that lie sees. This difficult ascent and “view of the upper world is the rising of the soul into the world of mind.” It is an arduous trek, but not an impossible one. By exploring abstractions, a person may reach the brilliant light. This trek, according to Socrates, requires the study of numbers, arithmetic, plane geometry, and astronomy. Though all these fields have their practical applications, their true value lies in the fact that they compel the soul to use pure reason in order to find out the truth.” Pure reason is expressed in the dialectical process – the very process they were all using in their exchange of views.
Socrates urged everyone “to get a start towards the real thing”; for it is only”through reason and without any help from the senses [that the individual can arrive] at the very end of the world of thought.” A final question was raised: What of pleasure? Socrates boldly insisted that the highest pleasure was that enjoyed by the philosopher, “the lover of wisdom.” A philosopher may or may not choose to experience the pleasures of gain and honor, but only he can “know how great is the pleasure of contemplating things as they are.” The “greed-for-wealth” philosophy espoused by democracies, he argued, inevitably causes democratic societies to turn to tyranny. For this reason, lie cautioned his listeners to guard their ideal city against the arts of “the imitators” – those who wrote poetry: “[Poets] do not lay hold of truth.” The poetic artist projects images of “love-making and anger and all the desires and grief’s and pleasures in the soul which we say go along with our every action.” But this is not good in that “it nourishes [the passions] by watering what it ought to dry up, and makes them rulers in us..” Socrates ended his involved analysis by exhorting his fellow philosophers to follow his advice. By employing all our faculties of reason and “believing the soul immortal and able to undergo all evil things and all good things, we will hold ever to the upper road, and we will practice in every way justice along with wisdom.” Commentary: Commentary The Republic is one of the foundational writings of Western philosophy and civilization. We see Platonic thought and Socratic methodology still vitally evolving in today’s world. Dialectic questioning is the basis of Marxism and many other schools of philosophy. Indeed, the question-and-answer method plays an expansive role in our legal, scientific and educational systems. Moreover, Plato’s views concerning the nature of humankind – his notion of “mind over matter” in the individual soul – is a cornerstone of Christianity.
The arguments and ideas of The Republic have had a profound influence on all the dialectic swings within our social, political, and religious quests and thinking since they were first written down in Athens twenty-five hundred years ago.