Plato's Republic

Part of the series on:
The Dialogues of Plato
Early dialogues:
ApologyCharmidesCrito
EuthyphroFirst Alcibiades
Hippias MajorHippias Minor
IonLachesLysis
Transitional & middle dialogues:
CratylusEuthydemusGorgias
MenexenusMenoPhaedo
ProtagorasSymposium
Later middle dialogues:
The RepublicPhaedrus
ParmenidesTheaetetus
Late dialogues:
TimaeusCritias
The SophistThe Statesman
PhilebusLaws
Of doubtful authenticity:
ClitophonEpinomis
EpistlesHipparchus
MinosRival Lovers
Second AlcibiadesTheages

The Republic is an influential treatise of political science by the Greek philosopher Plato, written in approxmately 390 BC. The dialogue concerns what is called philosophia peri ta anthropina (philosophy of the human things) and it encompasses the areas of economics, political sociology, political philosophy, ethics, justice and knowledge. The political ideas are presented through a paradigm of the good city which is the ground of a manifold of historical city-states differing in grade and declining in quality from its origin. While Plato's conclusion may appear that the ideal community is ruled by philosophers, his actual intent is the education of the haughty and headstrong Glaucon, a staunch aristocratic type that may represent a threat to the continuation of Athenian political life through his force of will. It is one of the cornerstones of Western philosophy.

The original title of the work is the Greek word politeia. "The Republic", which is the standard English translation of the title, is somewhat a misnomer, taken from Cicero; it could be named Citizenship.

Setting and dramatis personae

The Republic is one of Plato's longest dialogues, subdivided in 10 books afterwards.

The characters appearing in The Republic are:

  • Socrates
  • Glaucon, a brother of Plato
  • Adeimantus, another brother of Plato
  • The other minor characters are Cephalus, an elderly arms manufacturer; Polemarchus, son of Cephalus; Thrasymachus, a sophist; his friend Cleitophon; Charmantides, another son of Cephalus
  • There are three silent characters: Lysias and Euthydemus, sons of Cephalus, and Niceratus.

The scene of the dialogue is the house of Cephalus at Piraeus, a city beyond the walls of ancient Athens; it was the port of entry and exit for trade into Athens. Socrates was not known to venture outside of Athens regularly. The whole dialogue is narrated by Socrates the day after it actually took place, to, amongst others, Timaeus, Hermocrates and Critias.

Content

The Republic is a wide-ranging and comprehensive dialogue articulated by dramatic scenes and topics of discussion. One can refer to passages of the Republic by the Books, Chapters, and Stephanus pagination of the manuscript and printing tradition. Three interpretations, or summaries of the dialogue follow.

Francis Cornford, Kurt Hildebrandt and Eric Voegelin contributed to an establishment of subdivisions marked by special formulae in Greek:

Prologue

  1. I.1 327a—328b. Descent to the Piraeus
  2. I.2—I.5. 328b—331d. Cephalus. Justice of the Older Generation
  3. I.6—1.9. 331e—336a. Polemarchus. Justice of the Middle Generation
  4. I.10—1.24. 336b—354c. Thrasymachus. Justice of the Sophist

Introduction

  1. II.1—II.10. 357a—369b. The Question: Is Justice Better than Injustice?

Part I: Genesis and Order of the Polis

  1. II.11—II.16. 369b—376e. Genesis of the Polis
  2. II.1—III.18. 376e—412b. Education of the Guardians
  3. III.I9—IV.5. 412b—427c. Constitution of the Polis
  4. IV.6—IV.I9. 427c—445e. Justice in the Polis

Part II: Embodiment of the Idea

  1. V.1—V.i6. 449a—471c. Somatic Unit of Polis and Hellenes
  2. V.17—VI.I4- 471c—502c. Rule of the Philosophers
  3. VI.19—VII.5. 502c—521c. The Idea of the Agathon
  4. VII.6—VII.18. 521c—541b. Education of the Philosophers

Part III: Decline of the Polis

  1. VIII.1—VIII.5. 543a—550c. Timocracy
  2. VIII.6—VIII.9. 550c—555b. Oligarchy
  3. VIII.10—VIII.13. 555b—562a. Democracy
  4. VIII.I4—IX-3. 562a—576b. Tyranny

Conclusion

IX-4—IX.13. 576b—592b Answer: Justice is Better than Injustice

Epilogue
X.1—X.8. 595a—608b. Rejection of Mimetic Art
X-9—X.11. 608c—612a. Immortality of the Soul
X. 12 612a—613e. Rewards of Justice in Life
X.I3—X,16. 613e—631d. Judgment of the Dead

  1. The paradigm of the city - the idea of the Good, of the Agathon - has for Plato a manifold of historical embodiments. The embodiment must be undertaken by those who have seen the Agathon and are ordered through the vision. Hence, in the centre piece of the Republic, Part II, 2-3, Plato deals with the rule of the philosopher and the vision of the Agathon in the famous allegory of the cave, with which Plato clarifies his theory of forms.
  2. That center piece is preceded and followed by the discussion of the means that will secure a well-ordered polis. Part II, 1 deals with marriage, the comunity of people and goods for the guardians, and the restraints on warfare among the Hellenes. It has wrongly being described as a communistic utopia, a word that is not even extant in classical Greek. Part II, 4 deals with the philosophical education of the rulers who will preserve the order.
  3. The central Part II, the Embodiment of the Idea, is preceded by the building of economic and social of order for a polis in Part I; and is followed by an analysis in Part III, of the decline through which the right order will have to pass. The three parts form the main body of the dialogue, with their discussion of paradigm , its embodiment, its genesis, and its decline.
  4. That main body is framed by an Introduction and a Conclusion. The discussion of right order was occasioned by a question whether justice is better than injustice, or whether unjust man will not fare better than the just man. The introductory question is balanced by the concluding answer that justice is preferable to injustice.
  5. The main body of the dialogue, together with its Introduction and Conclusion, finally, is framed by the Prologue of Book I and the Epilogue of Book X. The prologue is a short dialogue in itself and it portrays the common opinions doxai about justice. The Epilogue is not grounded on reason but on faith. It describes the new arts and the immortality of the soul.

Bertrand Russell sees three parts in Plato's Republic (1):

  • Book I-V: the Utopia part, portraying the ideal community, starting from an attempt to define justice;
  • Book VI-VII: since philosophers are seen as the ideal rulers of such community, this part of the text concentrates on defining what a philosopher is;
  • Book VIII-X: discusses several practical forms of government, their pros and cons.

The core of the second part is discussed in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and articles related to Plato's theory of (ideal) forms. The third part, concentrating also on education, is also strongly related to Plato's dialogue The Laws - see Laws (Plato) It influenced the


The German-born American political theorist, Leo Strauss, sees a four-part structure of the dialogue: he looks at the entire dialogue as a drama played out between particular characters, each with particular points of view and levels of comprehension:

  • Book I: Socrates is compelled by force to Cephalus's home. Three definitions of justice are presented, and all three are found lacking.
  • Books II-V: Socrates is challenged by Glaucon and Adeimantus to prove why a perfectly just person, who is seen by the entire world as unjust, would be happier than the perfectly unjust person, who hides his injustice from view and is seen by the entire world as just. This stark challenge is the engine and drive of the dialogue; it is only with this 'charge' that we begin to witness how Socrates actually conducted himself with the young men of Athens he was convicted of corrupting. Because a definition of justice is assumed by Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates makes a detour; he forces the group to try to uncover justice, and then to answer the question posed to him about the intrinsic value of the just life.
  • Books V-VI: The 'Just City in Speech' is now built from the earlier books, and three waves or critiques of the city are encountered. According to Leo Strauss and his student Allan Bloom they are: communism, communism of wives and children, and the rule of philosophers. The 'Just City in Speech’ stands or falls by these complications.
  • Books VII-X: Socrates has 'escaped' his capturers, for he has convinced them, at least for the moment, that the just man is the happy man. He then spends much time reinforcing their prejudices. He displays a rationale for political decay, and he ends the dialogue recounting a myth, The Myth of Er, or everyman, which acts as a consolation for non-philosophers who fear death.

Definition of justice

The question with which The Republic sets out is to define justice. Given the difficulty of this task, Socrates and his interlocutors are led into a discussion of justice in the city, which they see as the same as justice in the person, but on a grander (and therefore easier to discuss) scale. Because of this, some critics (such as Julia Annas) interpret Plato's paradigm of a just state as an allegory for the paradigm of the just person.

Justice is defined as a state where everyone is to do their own work while not interfering with the work of others. This conception of justice, striking to the modern reader, is closely linked to the Greek conception of dike, the just order. This definition of justice leads to a social structure radically different from most previous and subsequent states.

Plato defines his Justice as "minding one's own business," (433b-433c) and goes on to say that Justice sustains and perfects the other three cardinal virtues, Temperance, Wisdom, and Courage and that Justice is the cause and condition of their existance.

The ideal form of government

Socrates points out the human tendency to corruption by power and thus the road from timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny: ruling should be left to educated people whose only purpose is to govern in what is deemed a just manner, and who are somehow immune to corruption. That "good city" is depicted as being governed by philosopher-kings; disinterested persons who rule not for their personal enjoyment but for the good of the city-state (polis). The paradigmatic society which stands behind every historical society is hierarchical, but social classes have a marginal permeability; there are no slaves, no castes, no discrimination between men and women. In addition to the ruling class of guardians (phulakoi) which abolished riches there is a class of private producers (demiourgoi) be they rich or poor. A number of provisions aim to avoid making the people weak: the substitution of debilitating music, poetry and theatre by a universal educational system for men and women -- a startling departure from Greek society. These provisions apply to all classes, and the restrictions placed on the philosopher-kings and the warriors are much more severe than those placed on the producers, because the rulers must be kept away from any source of corruption.

In PART II of the Republic the abolishment of riches among the guardian class (not unlike Max Weber's bureaucracy) leads controversially to the abandonment of the typical family, and as such no child may know his or her parents and the parents may not know their own children. Socrates tells a tale which is the "allegory of the good government". No nepotism, no private goods. The rulers assemble couples for reproduction, based on breeding criteria. Thus, stable population is achieved through eugenism and social cohesion is projected to be high because familiar links are extended towards everyone in the City. Also the education of the youth is such that they are taught of only works of writing that encourage them to improve themselves for the state's good, and envision (the) god(s) as entirely good, just, and the author(s) of only that which is good.

In Part III of The Republic stand Plato's criticism of the forms of government. It begins with the dismissal of timocracy, a sort of authoritarian regime, not unlike a South American military dictatorship. Plato offers a psychoanalytical explanation of the "timocrat" as one who saw his father humiliated by his mother and wants to vindicate "manliness". The third worst regime is oligarchy, the rule of a small band of rich people, millionaires that only respect money. Then comes the democratic form of government, and its susceptibility to being ruled by unfit "sectarians" demagogued. Finally the worst regime is tyranny, where the whimsical desires of the ruler became law and there is no check upon arbitrariness.

Theory of universals

The Republic contains Plato's Allegory of the cave with which he explains his concept of The Forms as an answer to the problem of universals.

Reception and interpretation

Ancient Greece

The idea of writing treatises on systems of government was followed some decades later by Plato's most prominent pupil Aristotle. He wrote a treatise for which he used the same Greek word "politeia" in the title as Plato had done for his dialogue on the ideal (city-)state. The title of Aristotle's work is however conventionally translated to "politics": see Politics (Aristotle).

Aristotle's treatise was not written in dialogue format: it systematises many of the concepts brought forward by Plato in his Republic, in some cases leading the author to a different conclusion as to what options are the most preferable.

Ancient Rome

Cicero

The English translation of the title of Plato's dialogue is derived from Cicero's De re publica, a dialogue written some three centuries later. Cicero's dialogue imitates the style of the Platonic dialogues, and treats many of the topics touched upon in Plato's Republic. Scipio Africanus, the main character of Cicero's dialogue expresses his esteem for Plato and Socrates when they are talking about the "Res publica". "Res publica" is however not an exact translation of the Greek word "politeia" that Plato used in the title of his dialogue: "politeia" is a general term indicating the various forms of government that could be used and were used in a Polis or city-state.

While in Plato's Republic the character Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of an ideal city and are not so much engaged in analysing the state they are living in (which was Athenian democracy - Plato's Laws is more concrete on that point), in Cicero's De re publica all comments, directly or indirectly, are about (the improvement of) the organisation of the state the participants live in, which was the Roman Republic in its final stages.

Critique

In Antiquity Plato's works were largely acclaimed, still, some commentators had another view. Tacitus, not mentioning Plato or The Republic nominally in this passage (so his critique extends, to a certain degree, to Cicero's Republic and Aristotle's Politeia as well, to name only a few), noted the following (Ann. IV, 33):

Nam cunctas nationes et urbes populus aut primores aut singuli regunt: delecta ex iis (his) et consociata (constituta) rei publicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest. Indeed, a nation or city is ruled by the people, or by an upper class, or by a monarch. A government system that is invented from a choice of these same components is sooner idealised than realised; and even if realised, there'll be no future for it.

The point Tacitus develops in the paragraphs immediately preceding and following that quote is that the minute analysis and description of how a real state was goverened, like he does in his Annals, however boring the related facts might be (...if, for example, the regnants refuse to declench a spectacular war,...), has more practical lessons about good vs. bad governance, than philosophical treatises on the ideal form of government have.(2)

Augustinus

In the pivotal era of Rome's move from its ancient polytheist religion to christianity, Augustine wrote his magnum opus The City of God: again, the references to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and their visions of the ideal state were legio: Augustinus equally described a model of the "ideal city", in his case the eternal Jerusalem, using a visionary language not unlike that of the preceding philosophers.

Utopias

Thomas More, when writing his Utopia, invented the technique of using the portrayal of a "utopia" as the carrier of his thoughts about the ideal society.

The Orwellian dystopia depicted in the novel 1984 (appearing a few years later) had many characteristics in common with Plato's description of the allegory of the Cave as Winston Smith strives to liberate himself from it.

More recently the Matrix saga has been compared with the kingdom of delusion against which Plato's characters are struggling.

Open Society or Closed Society?

The positivistic-minded 20th century commentators of Plato's Republic advise against reading it as a (would-be) manual for good governance: most forms of government discussed in The Republic bear little resemblance to more recent state organisations like (modern) republics, constitutional monarchies, etc. The concepts of democracy and of Utopia as depicted in The Republic are tied to the city-states of ancient Greece and their relevance to modern states is questionable. The city portrayed in The Republic struck some critics as unduly harsh, rigid, and unfree; indeed, as a kind of precursor to modern totalitarianism. Karl Popper gave a voice to that view in his 1945 The Open Society and its Enemies

On the other side, realistic commentators like Cornford, Gadamer, Hildebrandt, Voegelin and Strauss have other views. Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1934 Plato und die Dichter (Plato and the Poets), as well as several other works, where the utopic city of The Republic is seen as a heuristic utopia that should not be pursued or even be used as an orientation-point for political development. Rather, its purpose is said to be to show how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another — often with highly problematic results — if one would opt for certain principles and carry them through rigorously. This interpretation argues that large passages in Plato's writing are ironic (which, of course, an unusually high level of proficiency in ancient Greek is required to detect). In this interpretation Plato's entire oeuvre is not totalitarian: it modifies the interpretation of the imagined city of Plato's Republic from an exclusive optimist Utopia, to an (at least) partial Dystopia.

Eric Voegelin in Plato and Aristotle, Baton Rouge, 1957, gave meaning to the concept of ‘Just City in Speech’ (Books II-V). For instance, there is evidence in the dialogue that Socrates himself would not be a member of his 'ideal' state. His life was almost solely dedicated to the private pursuit of knowledge. More practically, Socrates suggests that members of the lower classes could rise to the higher ruling class, and vice versa, if they had ‘gold’ in their veins. It is a crude version of the concept of social mobility. The exercise of power is built on the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are brothers, philadelphia born of the earth, yet there is a clear hierarchy and class divisions. There is a tri-partite explanation of human psychology that is extrapolated to the city, the relation among peoples. There is no family among the guardians, another crude version of Max Weber's concept of bureaucracy as the state non-private concern.

Some of Plato’s proposals have lead philosophers like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom to ask readers to consider the possibility that Socrates was creating not a blueprint for a real city, but a learning exercise for the young men in the dialogue. The ruling class will have ‘sacred’ marriages because these are the result of manipulating and drugging couples into predetermined intercourse with the aim of eugenically breeding guardian-warriors. In turn, Plato has immortalized this ‘learning exercise’ in The Republic.

Leo Strauss's approach developed out a belief that Plato wrote esoterically, an insight which although presently accepted by many North American academics, is still rather poorly conceived. The basic acceptance of the exoteric-esoteric distinction revolves around whether Plato really wanted to see “The Just City in Speech” of Books V-VI come to pass, or whether it is just an allegory. However, it is clear Strauss never regarded this as the crucial issue. In fact, Strauss undermines the justice found in “The Just City in Speech” by implying the city is not natural, it is man made abstraction, and hence ironic.

One of the most convincing arguments against these less dismissive interpretations is that Plato's academy has produced a number of tyrants, despite being well-versed in Greek and having direct contact with Plato himself. Among his direct students were Klearchos, tyrant of Heraklia, Chairon, tyrant of Pellene, Eurostatos and Choriskos, tyrants of Skepsis, Hermias, tyrant of Atarneos and Assos, and Kallipos, tyrant of Syracuse. Against this, however, it can be argued, first, that the question is whether these men became "tyrants" through studying in the Academy (but rather that it was an elite student body, part of which would wind up in the seats of power, that was sent to study there), and, second, that it is by no means obvious that they were tyrants in the modern, or any totalitarian, sense.

Practicality

All these 20th century views have something in common: in spite of the near-impossibility of grasping the meanings of the ancient Greek for modern readers, the pedagogical value of The Republic is much greater than its practical value. It is a theoretical work, not a set of guidelines for good governance. Plato scholars see it as their task to provide the background knowledge that is needed to gain a fair understanding of what was meant by the author of The Republic. Then the uniqueness of The Republic shows up in the way it clarifies genuine connections of political causes and effects in real life, precisely by providing them with a heuristically rich context.

Nonetheless Bertrand Russell argues that at least in intent, and all in all not so far from what was possible in ancient Greek city-states, the form of government portrayed in The Republic was meant as a practical one by Plato.(3)

21st Century

By the end of the 20th century, some authors exploited Utopia/Dystopia ambiguities in their descriptions of imaginary societies. A book in this vein is Nobel Prize winner José Saramago's Ensaio sobre a Lucidez ("Treatise on Lucidity", 2004): an election count turns out 83% blank votes in one city of the country, without discernible reason. Is this democracy at its best or just a nightmare? Although the book is clearly meant as a political statement, it's left to the reader's "lucidity" to decide on the interpretation.

Where is Plato's Republic? Next to Yongy-Bongy-Bo, Shangri-La and Nirvana Land according to an American Newspaper Map

Similarities In Literature

The form of government described in the Republic has been adapted in several modern dystopic novels and stories. The separation of people by professional class, assignment of profession and purpose by the state, and the absence of traditional family units, replaced by state-organized breeding, was included by authors in descriptions of totalitarian dystopic governments. Government which bears resemblance to Plato's Republic is found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Lois Lowry's The Giver.

A more positive view of an Platonic style government would be Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. His citizen can be compared to a Platonic Guardian, without the communal breeding and property, but still having a militaristic base. Although there significant differences in the specifics of the system, Heinlein and Plato both endorse systems of limited franchise, with a political class that has earned their power and wisely governs the whole.

See also

Notes

Note (1): Eric Voegelin, Plato and Aristotle, Louisiana University Press, Baton Rouge, 1956.

Note (1): History of Western Philosophy, begin of Book I, part 2, ch. 14.

Note (2): This text by Tacitus also mirrors the first paragraphs of Polybius' Histories: Tacitus clearly sides with Polybius who also touts the importance of studying real history for improving knowledge on good governance - However Polybius can boast in these same opening paragraphs his story is about glorious facts and warfare; Tacitus argues the fact remains true, even if the story is less glorious. For this reason Tacitus' critique is only partially directed at Cicero, who learnt not less from Polybius and war heroes like Scipio, as from the more philosophical/utopian Greek writers.

Note (3): History of Western Philosophy, end of Book I, part 2, ch. 14.

References

  • Plato The Republic, (New CUP translation into English) ISBN 052148443X
  • Plato Respublica, (New OUP edition of Greek text) ISBN 0199248494
  • Bloom, Allan David. The Republic of Plato translated, with notes, and an interpretive essay. 2nd ed. Basic Books: New York, 1991
  • Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy. Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946. - See: two chapters to Plato's Republic, plus a preliminary one on the origin of Plato's concepts: Book I, Part 2, Ch. 13-15.
  • Strauss, Leo. 'Plato' History of Political Philosophy 3rd ed. University Of Chicago Press: Chicago, p. 34-68 1987.

Links

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