“The Republic” is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato somewhere around 380 BC. There has been much debate over when the dialogue might have taken place. It has been said that it may have taken place around the Peloponnesian War (460 BC). “The Republic” is Plato’s best-known treatise and has been shown over time to be one of the most influential works of philosophy and theory of politics that has ever been written.
The book is the record of a dialogue between Socrates and several other Athenians about the meaning of Justice and the idea of a perfect city. Socrates gives several examples of how the just man is happier than the unjust and talks about how a city can go through many cycles of government. In the end, he concludes the speech by setting forth an example of the worst case scenario for the man to fall to the tyrannical man, who lets his desires and dark instincts rule him completely. He then talks about the immortality of the soul and reincarnation.
“The Republic” by Plato, opens with his teacher, Socrates returning home accompanied by one of Plato’s brothers, Glaucon. Along the way, the three men meet Adeimantus, another brother of Plato. He is a young nobleman named Polemarchus. The nobleman invites the party to his home. He wants his father, Cephalus, to meet the great scholar, Socrates. Socrates and Cephalus have a lengthy discussion on the merits of age. Along the way, the discussion turns to justice. As a member of the established Greek government, Cephalus, an established businessman, offers his opinion. Justice requires honesty and following the laws, with no exceptions. Socrates is renowned for his ability to argue any point from any direction. So, he brings up an example of a counter argument. Suppose a madman had his weapon confiscated. According to Cephalus’ interpretation, they would have to return the weapon. With no further way to take this argument, Cephalus leaves to oversee some sacrifices.
His son, Polemarchus, takes over the argument. He is an ambitious, young politician, and his contention is that justice is to use for your friends and against your enemies. Socrates argues back by bringing up that we are not always friends with men of high morality and sometimes our enemies have a good deal of morality. With this argument, Socrates has pointed out the harmful tendency to use justice as the weapon.
The next person to enter into the argument is Thrasymachus, the Sophist, or teacher of virtue. His idea is to do away with laws and morality. He angrily states that justice is the strong dominating the weak. Acting justly only helps other people, never yourself. He thinks that justice is an unnatural action for people. It curtails our natural desires, and therefore should be abolished. This changes the argument. Not only must justice be defined, but it must also be proven to be worthwhile. Socrates gives three points of argument. First, Thrasymachus must admit that he is promoting injustice as a virtue. From his viewpoint, life is a continual competition to get more money, more power, etc. Then whoever acquires the most power is the most virtuous. That couldn’t be true, because it is contrary to wisdom, and wisdom is a virtue. Secondly, Socrates points out that if he wants the world to become more virtuous, they need to follow a certain set of rules. Lastly, he argues that “a just man is happy, and an unjust man wretched.” Therefore. Injustice is never more profitable than justice.
In the end of book one, the group is no closer to a true definition of justice and the importance of justice has been weakly argued. But, they all agree that they need to come up with some answers if they are to defend justice to the Sophists. “So long as I do no know what the just is,” Socrates says, “I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue or not and whether the one who has it is unhappy or happy.”
In the beginning of Book 2, Socrates is surprised to find the argument on justice continuing. Young Glaucon asks if Socrates wants to actually persuade them that to be just is better than to be unjust, or does he just want to make it appear that he has persuaded them? When Socrates answers that he wants to actually persuade them, of course, Glaucon points out the three classes of good. The first is the kind of good we desire for it’s own sake, not just for its consequences. The second kind of good is for it’s consequences, not for the joy of the journey. Such as exercising, healthy diets, etc. And then, the third kind of good is the kind of activities from which money is made. Glaucon continues with asking Socrates in which of these forms of good does justice fall.
Glaucon points out that most people think justice falls under the second category. That justice is a form of “drudgery, that should be practiced for the sake of wages, and the reputation that comes from opinion, but all by itself it should be fled from as something hard.” To further his argument, Glaucon gives an example. There is the legend of the ring of Gyges. A simple shepherd is tending his sheep when an earthquake opens up a fissure in the valley. When he investigates, he finds a hollow bronze horse with windows. Peeking in the window, he sees a corpse of a man, larger than human size. The only thing it has on is a golden ring that has slipped off its finger.
Later, wearing the ring, he is waiting with the other shepherds to make his monthly report to the King. He absentmindedly turns the ring and becomes invisible to those around him. Twisting it again, he becomes visible. His first action was to commit adultery with the queen. Then he killed the king and became ruler of the kingdom.
Next, Glaucon posits that if there were two rings, and an unjust man had one, but a just man had the other, both men would act the same. Turning away from acting without fear of consequences would be equally hard for the just or the unjust. Glaucon then contends that the unjust man is rewarded with wealth and the completely just man is usually scorned.
Then Adeimantus agrees with Glaucon, adding that the just are looking for their reward in the afterlife. Then he, also, asks Socrates to make being just sound like a good idea. That justice can be good for it’s own sake, like joy or knowledge.
Since this part of the lesson by Socrates is involving stories, he wants to lay some ground rules. Heroes must be courageous in the face of danger even though they are afraid. Hades must be made to seem so terrifying that the heroes will not take chances that lead them to it’s gates. They must bemoan the deaths of fallen comrades. And, they should steer away from violent emotions. But, most importantly, he must be honest.
When Glaucon asks him about the stories of normal mortal men, Socrates pushes those aside for now. Those stories reward the unjust and punish the just. They must first prove the goodness of justice then they can go back and disprove those stories.
Socrates goes on to decide on the meter for their stories and whether they should be lyrical or dramatic. Next, he touches on the arts, such as painting. Their heroes, or guardians of the country, should be graceful, not boorish or vicious.
Physical training for these guardians should involve swordplay and training for battle, not the training an athlete would be involved in. It would also be important to find a balance between the physical training and the training in music and poetry. Too much physical training would make them savage, while too much music and poetry would make them soft.
Socrates goes on to state his ideas for the medical training in the just city. Doctors should only be trained to treat normally healthy people with a single, curable illness, a not treat ones with chronic illness. Those patients should be left to die naturally. If someone has an incurable mental disease, they should be put to death.
Socrates points out that in the city they are building with their stories, everyone must be equally happy. No one must be happy at the expense of another person. They must deal with each portion separately in order to maintain balance. There will be no money in this city, so there will be no wealth or poverty. Adeimantus points out that a city without revenue cannot defend itself. But, Socrates says that the city would have the best trained guardians and neighboring cities would be happy to help if they were promised all the spoils of battle.
Socrates wants the city to not grow too large. The guardians would share equally in all things, including wives and children. There would be no need of laws, because their closely guarded education would keep them on a morally straight path. Now the just city is ready. Since it is the best city possible, it will definitely have the four virtues; wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. Wisdom comes from the guardians, who run the city. Courage must be found in the men who actually fight for the city. Moderation is used in choosing the rulers and justice is found in the laws that state that everyone provide the job for the betterment of the city by doing what job they are best suited for.
The perfectly just city is designed, now what about a person?
Before Socrates can continue in his discussion of the just city and the just soul, he is interrupted by Polemarchus and Adeimantus. They want some further explanation on the sharing of wives and children by the guardians. Socrates states that women would receive the same training as men. They would learn politics and guardianship. He believes that women can be just as spirited, intelligent and rational as men, and the perfect city would treat them as equals. Males and females would only mate during fixed times of the year, those times would be known as festivals. They would only be wed for about how long the intercourse lasts. A particularly attractive person, or a person wanting to reproduce, could be married as many as five times in a single festival. The father of any children would be unknown, so their children would be taken from the parents and raised together. Sex between festivals would be forbidden and any children born from those unions, killed.
To avoid incest, everyone must consider any child born within seven and ten months of copulation to be their child, and all children would look at the children born within that span of time as brothers and sisters. This would ensure a unified city. In most cities, people care about their city, but care more about their family. In this city, everyone is family. The city shares all goals and concerns. Before his students can ask more questions about this arrangement and whether asking people to forgo wealth, family ties and romance is feasible, Socrates adds more to his perfect guardians.
Children should accompany their trainers to war so they can learn how it is done, like any other apprentice would. But, they should be on horseback and able to retreat quickly in case of defeat. Also, any one who acts cowardly should be stripped of their title of guardian. Then he goes on to explain what should be done to an army after they are defeated, and how to deal with prisoners. If they are Greek, they should not be made slaves and their land should not be destroyed. Someday, all Greece will be united again. But, barbarians, or any people who aren’t Greek, the story is different. His guardians would make the barbarians slaves, and treat them however they liked.
Since only true philosophers can have knowledge, they are obviously the best sources of finding out what is good for the city and would be in the best position to correctly govern and maintain the sanctity of the city. Socrates’s friends agree that if we could be sure that the philosophers were virtuous, or, at the very least, not below others in their virtue, it would be sure that they were the ones best tailored for ruling. Luckily, because we know that a philosopher loves truth and strives to uphold it, they are more virtuous than the average layperson. The word “philosopher” in fact means “lover of truth or wisdom”. The rational part of a philosopher’s soul must, then rule his mind. And, therefore, his soul remains just.
Adeimantus is not convinced by this as he has never met a philosopher like the one Socrates is describing. He remains in the camp that most philosophers are lazy and useless and the ones that aren’t are mean and spiteful. Surprisingly, Socrates actually agrees with Adeimantus on this.
However, he does argue that the current batch of contemporary philosophers have not been raised in what he deems to be the right way. Any man born today with a natural philosophical nature – that is, a man with a quick wit, a lofty sensibility and high mind, a courageous nature and a strong memory – is bound to be quickly beset by family and friends looking to make something for themselves out of his natural gift. Often they are forced into politics by their lecherous family and friends so that they may obtain money and power. Due to this, inevitably they are brought away from any sort of philosophical life. In their stead others who lack their natural gift are brought in to act as philosophers when they ought not to be. These are the ones who turn out mean and spiteful.
The few who turn out to be good philosophers – those whose nature’s remain uncorrupted – are thought of as being useless because society as a whole has become immoral. Socrates here makes a comparison to a ship whose owner is deaf, blind and lacks any sea-faring capabilities. The sailors of the ship begin to fight over who should be the true captain, though in truth none of them are qualified. Because they are unskilled they end up using brute strength and trickery to convince the ships owner to name them captain.
Whoever succeeds is called ‘captain’ while the others are called useless. Though they all used the same tricks to get what they wanted. Socrates says that the true captain, in this scenario would probably be the most useless stargazer of them all, as he is only one that knows anything about navigation.
Athens’ current situation, he continues, is much like this scenario. Most people do not realize that there is any kind of real knowledge to be had but instead most use tricks and clever chicanery to get ahead. The only good philosophers are seen as being useless. Socrates concludes by saying that all that they need to create a good philosopher is one person who is educated in just the right way and will properly grasp the Forms. He believes that this is not impossible.
At the beginning of book seven, Socrates lays out the most poignant and perhaps one of the most famous metaphors in all of Western philosophy: the allegory of the cave. He describes a scene of several prisoners tied up in a dark cave. They have been tied up for their whole lives and are tied in such a way that they can only see straight ahead of them. The prisoners have only ever known the cave and the shadows that come from the statues around them cast by the fire on the wall. These prisoners are meant to represent imagination which is the lowest stage on the line. One day, a prisoner is freed from his bonds and brought close to the fire. He is made to look at the statues themselves. This astounds the prisoner. He suddenly realizes that the shadows that he has taken to be the only reality for his entire life are not only a pale reflection of the statues. He begins to see how the combination of the fire and the statues casts the shadows. He thinks that the statues, the fire and the cave are the only real things and does not grasp that there is still a world outside the cave. This is the “belief” stage on the line.
One day, a prisoner is freed from his bonds and brought close to the fire. He is made to look at the statues themselves. This astounds the prisoner. He suddenly realizes that the shadows that he has taken to be the only reality for his entire life are not only a pale reflection of the statues. He begins to see how the combination of the fire and the statues casts the shadows. He thinks that the statues, the fire and the cave are the only real things and does not grasp that there is still a world outside the cave. This is the “belief” stage on the line.
The prisoner is then brought outside the cave into the sunlight. He is astounded by this and so dazzled that he cannot even look at it at first. Soon he begins to see houses, people and trees-real objects. He realizes that the statues are merely copies of the people and things and has now moved on to the stage of cognitive thought. He sees his first image of the most real objects, the Forms. When the prisoner looks to the sun he realizes that it is the reason for everything surrounding him. This is the Form of the Good. The prisoner has now reached the stage of understanding.
This metaphor, Socrates concludes is supposed to illustrate the effect of education on a person’s soul. Education alone brought the prisoner (or the philosopher) along the stages of the divided line and into the Form of the Good. The main end goal of education should be to drag every person out of the cave of their ignorance. The goal of the city should be to educate people with the right natures so that they can bring their minds toward the Form of the Good. But they must sometimes turn their minds back to the shadows to help other prisoners as well.
Once Socrates is done describing the just city he does on to the start again on the four unjust constitutions of city and man. In addition to the ones he has already described, Socrates says there are four other city/man pairs. There is the timocracy and the man who rules it must be honor driven. The oligarchy which will be ruled by a man only driven by his most necessary appetites. The democracy, which is driven by a man with unnecessary appetites. Lastly, there is tyranny which can only be ruled by a man driven by his unlawful desires. Each constitution is worst than the one coming before it, with tyranny being the absolute worst. Socrates feels that since their city is human these are not theoretical or separate states but ones that the city will inevitably cycle through over time. Inevitably, he says, the rulers of the city will choose the next generation and more and more mistakes in this area will be made over time until the worst sort of people occupy the government.
These people will be driven by greed and want nothing but personal wealth and land. The old rulers will still want virtue and, after a battle, eventually they will compromise with a timocracy. The rulers will take all of the land in the city as private property for themselves and enslave the people. They will make wars and take no part in farming or labor. Soon their love of victory will take over completely.
Next, the timocracy will devolve into an oligarchy. Whoever has wealth above a certain point will automatically become a ruler. And whoever does not will have no say in the city.
Next comes the democracy, the desire to obtain the lion’s share of the wealth will devolve into lending of money at high interest rates. The split becomes so that most of the city is driven into poverty while a select few become richer than ever. Eventually, the poor people will revolt and destroy the rich. They will set up a new constitution so that everyone may have a share in ruling. They will give out positions of power without any attention to who is the best for the role. There is, therefore, no order or harmony.
In the final permutation, tyranny begins. The citizens desires for complete freedom causes them to neglect any order or ruling. The leader of the former revolt becomes the tyrant of the poor. He kills anyone whom he fears may overthrow him and enslaves everyone else so that he can take from them to add to his wealth. He makes war constantly to distract the citizens from what else he is doing.
Book nine is the description of Socrates’ version of a tyrannical man. The tyrannical man is overtaken by unlawful desires. He is the son of the democratic man who moves a little bit forward into lawlessness. He is ruled by shamelessness and lack of moderation. He has a strong erotic desire that overrules his rational mind. The tyrannical man lives for life’s luxuries only. He goes from feast to feast, woman to woman with no thought for anything else.
He quickly spends away all of his money and must begin borrowing. When he has exhausted all means of borrowing he begins to commit murders to obtain more. He has brought to life all of the darkest desires that we usually only see in nightmares and become a sleepwalker, a waking nightmare. Soon he will do anything to keep up his lifestyle. He trusts no one and keeps no friends. Any decent part of his soul left is trapped behind the most vicious parts.
After he is done describing the frightening tyrannical man, everyone agrees that this is the worst outcome. Socrates does not agree, however. There is one that is worse. A political tyrant vs the private tyrant that he described. Socrates asks his friends to envision moving this private tyrant and his family and slaves to a deserted island. With no law to protect him from the slaves he has been mistreating, the tyrant would begin to fear retribution.
This is what it is like to be a tyrant. He is constantly in fear of being killed in retribution for his crimes. He becomes a captive to his own terror and cannot leave his house for all of the enemies he has created. This tyrant is the least happy of all men. However, the most just man, the aristocrat is the most happy. In reality it pays to be just.
Socrates, satisfied that he has concluded his argument for why it is worthwhile be be a just man, turns back to the question about poetry and human beings. Surprisingly, he has banished all poets from the city. He feels that they are dangerous and unwholesome for three reasons. Because they pretend to know everything, because they use imagery from the worst part of the soul and because they trick us into sympathizing with those who lust and grieve excessively and laugh at foolish things. We assume that there is no harm is enjoying these things because the poem is about a fictional character but Socrates maintains that the joy we feel in indulging these emotions carries over into our real life.
However, despite all these reasons, Socrates regrets banishing the poets. He says that he would allow them back into the city if anyone could argue in their defense. He then briefly describes proof that the soul is immortal. A soul can only be destroyed but what is bad for it, such as injustice and vices. But obviously these things do not destroy the soul as people would not be able to survive for very long if they did. So, therefore the soul cannot be destroyed. It is immortal.
Socrates puts forth his final argument in favor of justice. He describes a warrior who is killed in battle but does not truly die and is sent to heaven to watch what happens there so that he may return to earth and tell of what he has seen. He watches as virtue and wisdom are rewarded. People are either sent to heaven or hell for 1,000 years and then brought together again so that they may choose their next life.
They may either choose to be an animal or a human but this choice will effect whether they are rewarded or punished after the next life. Only those who were philosophical while they were on earth catch on to this clever trick and choose to live just lives. Everyone one else involved must dodge back and forth between misery and happiness with every life.
Socrates – lived from 469 to 399 BC. A Greek philosopher and teacher to Plato. Most of what we know of him was written by Plato, so scholars are not absolutely sure what is Socrates and what are Plato’s ideas using Socrates’ name. Socrates is said to be one of the originators of Western Philosophy. Form his teachings come such things as Socratic Irony, he would act like he didn’t understand what the person he was debating with was explaining in order to get the person to talk so much that he lost track of his topic, while Socrates, who actually was quite knowledgeable on the subject, made the person look stupid.
He was also known for what is now referred to as the Socratic Method. This is a method of asking and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking. His study of philosophy spotlighted epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy that looks into the limits of human intelligence. Socrates is famous for saying, “I know that I know nothing.”
Socrates met his end because of the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle said that Socrates was the wisest man in the city, but he disagreed, because his contention was that he didn’t know anything. So, he went about questioning all the nobles, only to discover the Oracle was right. He was the only person who didn’t assume he was a genius, so therefore, he was. Unfortunately, the questions angered a lot of well placed people. When Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and of not believing in the gods of the city, he was found guilty. His punishment was to drink poison and die.
Glaucon – older brother to Plato and a young man of noble birth. He is a musician and can answer questions on musical theory. Socrates also asks about animal husbandry because Glaucon owns a variety of pets. In the beginning of The Republic, Glaucon is returning to Athens with Socrates after a festival. When he, Plato, and Socrates all go to the house of Polemarchus and meet Thrasymachus, he is involved in the discussion of justice, and brings it up again later to Socrates in order to keep the discussion moving. In his viewpoint, laws are something people follow so they can reap the rewards of good behavior, or the fear the punishments of not following rules. If it wasn’t for the consequences of bad behavior, every one, given the chance, would behave unjustly.
Adeimantus – older brother of Plato. He is the practical voice in the debate. His concerns are about education and the happiness of the people in the city Socrates is imagining. He is known for his questions about wealth in the imaginary city.
Polemarchus – son of Cephalus, a prominent businessman. Polemarchus wants to go into politics and is the instigator of the whole discussion on justice.
Thrasymachus – a Sophist, which is a teacher of virtue. His opinion of justice is that it is headed out, and mankind will not need it to keep the cities going. He is very cynical.
Plato was a Greek philosopher and one of the most influential and creative thinkers in Western philosophy. Plato was born to an aristocratic family some time in 428 BC in Athens, Greece. His father, Ariston was said to be descended from the early kings of Athens. Perictione, his mother, was related to the 6th century BC lawmaker, Solon.
When Plato was a child his father died and his mother married Pyrilampes who was a collegue of the statesman Pericles.
As a young man, Plato had political ambitions, but he quickly abandoned them when he began to become dissatisfied with the leadership in Athens. Eventually, he became a student of Socrates, accepting his philosophy and style of teaching. Plato was present to see the death of Socrates at the hands of the democracy of Athens in 399 BC. Perhaps fearing for his own life, he left Athens temporarily and went to Italy.
In 387 BC Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the school is often said to be the first European university. It provided a comprehensive body of classes, including such subjects as astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory and philosophy. Aristotle was the Academy’s most well-known student.
Plato went to Sicily in 367 BC to instruct the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, in how to rule philosophically. The experiment, however, failed. Plato returned to Syracuse in 361 BC but again his entanglement in Sicilian affairs failed. The last years of his life were spent writing and lecturing at the Academy. He died at the age of 80 in Athens in either 348 or 347 BC.
Plato’s works were in dialogue form. Philosophical ideas were put forth, discussed, and argued within the context of a conversation or a debate involving two or more people. One of the earliest known collections of Plato’s work includes 35 dialogues and 13 letters.
Plato’s influence throughout the history of philosophy is so large that it is hard to measure. When he died, the philosopher, Speusippus (d. about 339 BC) became head of the Academy. The school stayed open until AD 529, when it was shut down by then Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who objected to what he thought were it’s pagan teachings.During the Renaissance the primary focus of Platonic influence was the Florentine Academy founded in the 15th century. Members of the academy studied Plato in the original Greek. In England Platonism was brought back in the 17th century by a man named Ralph Cudworth and a few others who called themselves the Cambridge Platonists. Plato’s influence has been extended into the 21st century.
During the Renaissance the primary focus of Platonic influence was the Florentine Academy founded in the 15th century. Members of the academy studied Plato in the original Greek. In England Platonism was brought back in the 17th century by a man named Ralph Cudworth and a few others who called themselves the Cambridge Platonists. Plato’s influence has been extended into the 21st century.