Major Work: The Republic
Publication date: c. 380BC
Setting: Port of Piraeus, Attica, Greece
Length (time to read): 11hrs 30mins
Influences: Socrates, Homer, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Herodotus, Pythagoras, Pindar
Themes: Politics, The City, Morality, Justice, Arts, Education, Afterlife
Quotes (a selection from The Republic): “Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason” / “Heavy with wine, with eyes of a dog and heart of a deer” / “Or just as there were three classes in the city that held it together, money-making, auxiliary, and deliberative, is there in the soul too this third, the spirited, by nature an auxiliary to the calculating part, if it’s not corrupted by bad rearing?” / “Seeing others filled full of lawlessness, he [the philosopher] is content if somehow he himself can live his life here pure of injustice and unholy deeds, and take his leave from it graciously and cheerfully with fair hope” / “Haven’t you noticed that all opinions without knowledge are ugly?” / “When the eye of the soul is really buried in a d barbaric bog, dialectic gently draws it forth and leads it up above” / “[Democracy] is probably the fairest of the regimes. Just like a many-coloured cloak decorated in all hues, this regime, decorated with all dispositions, would also look fairest” / “Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, both for private man and city” / “Now consider this very point. Toward which is painting directed in each case – toward imitation of the being as it is or toward its looking as it looks? Is it imitation of looks or of truth?” / “We mustn’t be tempted by honour or money or any ruling office or, for that matter, poetry, into thinking that it’s worthwhile to neglect justice and the rest of virtue” / “Daughters of Necessity, Fates – Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos – clad in white with wreaths on their heads, they sing to the Sirens’ harmony, Lachesis of what has been, Clotho of what is, and Atropos of what is going to be“.
Literary Echoes: Aristotle, Dante, Machiavelli, Thomas More, Kant, Marx, George Orwell
Album accompaniment: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Just like Plato’s Republic is the fountainhead of western philosophy, Dylan’s 1965 album is the original wellspring of modern pop music. Both are visionary works too, with the Myth of Er at the end of The Republic similar in scope to Desolation Row at the end of Highway 61.
Film accompaniment: The Matrix, a modern reinterpretation of the Allegory of the Cave.
Rating (out of 100): 99
Just as Socrates taught Plato, Plato in turn taught Aristotle (see blog). Of the three giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Socrates is alone in having no written works to his name. We have Plato to thank for providing the fullest account of Socrates’ thoughts and deeds, though the picture of him can vary from one dialogue to another and it’s also hard to unpick Socrates’ philosophy from Plato’s own. A good measure of Plato’s respect for Socrates is the fact that, in most of the dialogues he wrote, Socrates is the main figure and there is only one dialogue (the Laws) in which he does not appear at all. Not once does Plato himself appear in his dialogues, though his brothers Glaucon and Adiemantus feature in The Republic, for example. Sometimes Socrates is the “gadfly” constantly questioning others, sometimes he confidently puts forward his own views, and sometimes he is merely a passive observer.
Scholars believe that we have all of Plato’s “published” works, including one unfinished fragment (Critias); there are 30 dialogues that are widely believed to be Plato’s own works, plus 11 dialogues attributed to Plato after his death, and also others about which there is less consensus (I’ve omitted them in this list). Here are the 41: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, Second Alcibiades, Hipparchus, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias, Ion, Menexenus, Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias, Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Definitions, On Justice, On Virtue, Demodocus, Sisyphus, Halcyon, Eryxias, and Axiochus. All of them are available freely online, often in the original English translation by Benjamin Jowett (see link to PDF here, or online). For this blog, I’ll focus on his most famous dialogue, The Republic, which I read in the Allan Bloom translation with my Goodreads group.
Egyptian Greek astrologer, Thrasyllus, who worked for Roman Emperor Tiberius (during his 14-37AD reign), organised Plato’s dialogues into 9 tetralogies (groups of four), deeming 5 of those listed above (Demodocus, Halcyon, On Justice, On Virtue and Sisyphus) to be “spurious”. Here’s his schema:
Plato: A Brief Timeline
427BC: Born in Athens to a noble family, said to be descended from Solon, the 6th century BC lawmaker that laid the foundations for democracy in Athens.
404BC: Athens defeated in the Peloponnesian War, bringing about rule of the city by the Thirty Tyrants. Led by Critias, the Thirty Tyrants executed, murdered and exiled many Athenians, including the real Polemarchus who we meet as a character in Book 1.
399BC: Socrates (born c.468BC) tried and executed under the restored democracy. Plato’s Apology (which, in this context, means trial defence) specifically explores this event. Plato is believed to have met Socrates in 407BC.
399-387BC: Plato travels to southern Italy, to teach and learn geometry among the Pythagoreans, and possibly also visits Egypt.
387BC: Plato founds his school of philosophy, the Academy, in Athens.
367BC: Plato asked to instruct Dionysus II, ruler of Syracuse in Sicily, but is unable to realise his vision of cultivating a real-life philosopher king.
347BC: Plato dies at his Academy.
Another way Plato’s dialogues can be organised is according to when he wrote them, with three key periods – early, middle and late. The Republic is from Plato’s late period, and as one of his longest and most complex works, its themes often overlap with those of other dialogues. For example, Plato’s views about education and the relation of the individual to community and politics are to be found in the Statesman and Laws, as well as the Republic. In addition, Plato’s arguments about the soul can best be encountered in the Phaedo, the Republic, Phaedrus and the Laws, while the Republic is also home to some of the most fascinating myths and allegories that Plato created. All Plato’s works are organised into a system of page references called the Stephanus numbers, so any number + letter references in brackets below (i.e. 515a) refer to that section of the dialogue.
On the face of it, the question, “what is justice?”, drives the Republic forward, but the plentiful diversions and digressions mean that the dialogue’s scope is far wider. Structured into 10 “books”, the Republic also has three distinct sections: Books I-IV (Introduction, exploration of the nature of justice and construction of the ideal state), Books V-VII (Nature of philosophy, theory of Forms and the idea of the Good) and VIII-X (Political regimes, poetry vs philosophy and the afterlife). I’ll try to summarise some of the big ideas book-by-book below but it’s worth saying now that, one lesson I learned after finishing the Republic, especially by combining my reading with this Great Courses lecture series, was that Plato’s plans for a utopia or “ideal state” should not be read in a too literal-minded way. It’s not a blueprint, but a way to make us think for ourselves.
Philosophy as a system of thought was very much a real thing in Plato’s day, and there were travelling teachers who peddled their wares. In book 1, we meet one of those teachers, Thrasymachus, who as a “sophist” or relativist who made a profit from his philosophy is the polar opposite to Socrates. Unlike the sophists, Socrates repeatedly insists that he “knows nothing”, so how could he possibly charge anyone for his teaching? Thrasymachus doesn’t believe in absolute, universal values like beauty, goodness or justice, and interprets the latter as simply the “advantage of the stronger”. Another relativist, Clitophon, presents an even more radical and extreme version of this idea, calling justice “what the stronger believes to be to his advantage”. Socrates refutes the first argument on the simple basis that rulers make mistakes (as a sign of the book’s perennial relevance, the absolutist vs relativist debate still rages in philosophy today); however, Socrates admits that he still hasn’t been successful in defining what justice is exactly and Glaucon (Plato’s brother) challenges him to do so.
Glaucon’s challenge (tied to the relevant myth of Gyges and the ring of invisibility) focuses on why we should aspire to justice as a “moral good” in itself, not just because it enhances our reputation or possibly saves us from any kind of religious hell. Plato would have encountered the myth in Herodotus, when the Lydian king Candaules asks Gyges to break the law (by observing Candaules’ wife naked) because he wants an outside confirmation of his wife’s beauty. Plato’s version is different – as seeing someone’s wife naked was not a crime in Athens – but still an inspired way of illustrating Glaucon’s contention that, as soon as we don’t face the consequences of our actions, there’s a temptation to behave more selfishly and give in to our base desires. This is the notion that morality is just a social construct. The argument still has resonance for me today when I think about invisibility on social media, and the appalling behaviour of internet trolls.
Glaucon wants to know if justice is a private experience, a feeling like that which Candaules experiences for his wife, or if it can be manifested publicly and objectively. In response, Socrates makes the “isomorphic” city-soul analogy, as though the city were the human soul writ large. Socrates believes that justice exists in well-ordered communities, as well as in single human beings, so he considers it best to illustrate the benefits of justice by looking first at the city. As well as the reference to Herodotus, Plato also quotes Pindar (via his brother Adiemantus) in this part of the dialogue: “Will I with justice or with crooked deceits scale the higher wall?” (365b).
Socrates explores what he sees as the malign influence of poetry, music and drama in this book, with Homer and Aeschylus both criticised for their portrayal of the gods. Socrates dislikes big displays of emotion and excessive appetites, so introduces the idea of censorship to counteract the moral corruption of both individuals and the city. In Socrates’ ideal city, the poet whose style or content is not appropriate would have “myrrh poured over his head” and be “crowned with wool” (398a). For Socrates, “we would not have our guardians grow up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.”
Here, we’re introduced to the idea of the tripartite division of the soul and the city, which I’ve tried to summarise and visualise below:
For Socrates, temperance comes from the lower orders reining in their baser desires and living in harmony with others, and justice comes from everyone performing “one of the functions in the city” for which our character or nature makes us “naturally most fit”, what he calls “minding one’s own business” (443d). Justice is seen as “a certain health” of city and soul, and Socrates contends that this is why justice is superior to injustice: because health is superior to disease (445a). The city is wise because its guardians and rulers – the gold-souled people of the noble lie – are wise. It is courageous because the auxiliaries – the silver souls – have the ability to carry out their orders and not flee their posts. It is moderate because the lowest of the citizens – the bronze souls – obey orders and do not wish to have more than what they are given. Book IV is believed to be the basis for the four cardinal virtues that have long underpinned religious and philosophical teaching in the west.
In this book, we encounter the three waves of radical ideas that will characterise Socrates / Plato’s (henceforth S/P’s) ideal republic: equality between women & men, communism as it relates to sex and property, and philosophers as rulers. What’s most puzzling is how to connect the third wave with the first two. As part of the second wave, we’re told that no man and woman should live together privately, but that all should freely have sex with one another and share the parenting among them (457d), while all private property ownership should be abolished (464e), making it all sound a bit like a hippy commune. One reason the guardians of the city should be philosophers is that they can distinguish knowledge from opinion; for S/P, opinion “looks darker than knowledge” and “brighter than ignorance” (478c).
Here, we encounter the ship of state metaphor, which was not invented by Plato but made most famous by him. It’s now a widely accepted metaphor, but Plato’s version reveals a very pessimistic view of politics. The book starts with S/P’s idea of what qualities make up a philosopher (485b-486d), specifically; a “love of learning” that reveals the eternal, true nature of things; “no taste for falsehood”; moderate and no lover of money; not cowardly; not a “forgetful soul”, but measured and charming. Only these true philosophers are fit to be the pilots of the ship of state, but S/P recognises that, given their gaze is fixed on the stars, they are also vulnerable to competition from non-philosophers who would go to any length to take control of the rudder. For example, in a democracy, S/P believes that only those who are good at winning elections – rather than ruling – get elected.
Despite all the barriers to seeing this utopia come into being – in terms of the difficulties philosophers face in entering politics, the fact very few people can become philosophers, and that philosophers can be corrupted by the city – S/P refuses to give up hope, so instead he turns to the ideal of the Good at the end of book VI, which is the first introduction in the Republic to his famous doctrine of Forms.
This is the most meaty and substantial book in the Republic, and is often read in isolation on university literature courses. Plato likens the idea of the Good to the sun, but for obscure reasons he tells the story indirectly (perhaps because looking at the sun directly is harmful to the eyes?), by talking about the offspring of the Good. Plato’s idea of the Good is both similar to and different from the biblical God; similar in that both God & the Good are transcendent beings that are perfect and eternal, but different in that, unlike the Christian God, the form of the Good is lifeless, cold and incapable of love.
To illustrate how our minds can ascend to contemplate this idea of the Good, S/P presents the picture of a divided line, which creates two unequal parts, with each of the two parts divided in the same proportion. As he explains, the smaller part of the smaller part (A, see chart below) corresponds to shadows and reflections. The larger part of the smaller part (B) corresponds to the physical world. The smaller part of the larger part (C) corresponds to the world of mathematical forms, which we apprehend with the mind but only “by hypothesis”. Finally, the larger part of the larger part (D) corresponds to pure ideas apprehended by reason, such as the idea of the Good:
To illustrate this further, S/P presents a cave allegory, whereby:
The cave = The world of the senses
Prisoners = People who have ‘second-hand’ beliefs
Images on the wall = Illusion or imagining (eikasia)
The fire = The (physical) sun; more generally, what enables us to have sense experience
Seeing the fire and the people on the road = Belief (pistis)
Outside the cave = The intelligible world, or reality
The prisoner dragged outside the cave = The philosopher
Objects outside the cave = The Forms
Looking at reflections of objects outside cave = Thinking (dianoia)
Looking at objects outside the cave = Intelligence (noésis)
The sun = The Form of the Good
As well as an explanation for how to become a true philosopher, the cave allegory can be interpreted in many other ways, for example:
– Poetically (I got a glimpse of this from reading Bloom’s notes, especially when Socrates talks about education involving a turning around towards the light and away from the “barbaric bog”, or even better in the Greek, “borboroi barbarikoi”)
– Theologically (like God, the idea of the Good is perfect, eternal and transcendent)
– Scientifically (this is my favourite interpretation, with Plato inspired by Pythagoras to emphasise the mathematical laws or forms that underpin the natural world. You can almost trace a line from the Greeks and their love of geometry to the Islamic scholars that gave us algebra and trigonometry, and on to the European scientific revolution of Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, etc)
To become a philosopher in S/P’s ideal republic, education is paramount – in fact, it appears he believes in the supremacy of education over all things, even law – and this is roughly the training scheme that guardians must follow:
Aged up to 18: Calculation and geometry put before children in the form of play, not forced instruction (537a). Also music (or more broadly culture, including censored literature and arts)
Age 18-20: Military service (courage) and gymnastics, mentioned as a period of 2-3 years (537b)
Age 20-30: Higher education (move to level C on the divided line), including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, harmonics – S/P is looking for those who can see a deeper “kinship” (537c) between these various subjects
Age 30-35: Only after the age of 30 (537d) can students learn philosophy, rhetoric and dialectic, in order to grasp the Forms
Age 35-50: After five years of dialectic (540a), the proto-guardians must go back down to the “cave world”, and rule in the “affairs of war” and other such offices, in order to show their mettle
Age 50+: Rule as a guardian (540b), using their enlightenment to order the city and the lives of its citizens
To my mind, the bond that keeps the prisoners chained in the cave represents the weight or gravity that naturally keeps them in the realm of sensible things and shadows. To ascend to the realm of mathematical objects and forms requires intellectual energy (in the form of dialectic, or process of reasoning), in effect an input of energy that is sufficient to fight against gravity and break this bond.
We now turn away from grand ideas and back to the real world, to explore how political regimes change, and all the metamorphosis, decay and renewal that characterises them. While S/P sees as many types of governments as there are cities, for him they fall into five basic categories: aristocracy, timocracy (in which military power is prized above all), oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. S/P describes the degeneration from aristocracy to timocracy as driven by richer men whose love of honour means they “will have walls around their houses, exactly like private nests, where they can make lavish expenditures on women” (548b). These people will then become dominant in an oligarchy, until the poor in the city get sick of the vast inequality and rise up against the elite, thus bringing about democracy. For S/P, however, democracy is riddled with its own flaws:
It’s important to understand Plato’s contempt for democracy in light of the trial and death of Socrates. For S/P, democracy “is probably the fairest of the regimes. Just like a many-coloured cloak decorated in all hues, this regime, decorated with all dispositions, would also look fairest”. That said, he believes that people in a democracy “end up, as you well know, by paying no attention to the laws, written or unwritten, in order that they may avoid having any master at all” (563e). Also, S/P believes that democracy is also the most fertile ground for a tyrants, whom he describes as doing the reverse operation to “the one the doctors give to bodies. For they take off the worst and leave the best, while he does the opposite” (567d). It’s worth reflecting on this idea of the tyrant in light of current events.
S/P returns to his tripartite view of humanity here, by describing the “three primary classes of human beings” as “wisdom-loving, victory-loving, gain-loving”, and adding that while honour accompanies all three, “the kind of pleasure connected with the vision of what is [idea of the Good] cannot be tasted by anyone except the lover of wisdom” (582c). For S/P, philosophy is the only pure pleasure; other loves can lead to excess and pain, but not love of wisdom. To illustrate, a new and odd image of the human soul is presented as containing a many-headed hydra (desire), a lion (spirit) and a small human being or homunculus (reason). There are also a couple of strange mathematical ideas associated with the “marriage number” (or eugenics lottery) and the idea that a philosopher-king would be 729 times happier than a tyrant. This is probably an obscure joke, relating to the number of days and nights in the Greek year, but it seems that S/P is also making the serious point that mathematics can’t solve all human issues.
Whereas books 8 and 9 are without any philosophy, the final book of the Republic returns to the theme of poetry vs philosophy, with S/P now criticising all “mimesis” (poetic imitation of reality), a more severe condemnation of poetry and drama than that seen earlier in Book 3. Trying to understand why Plato might hold this contrary view, it’s important to remember that Plato would have seen poetry as an existential competitor to philosophy (it’s rumoured that Plato himself dabbled in poetry as a young man). There’s also the irony that The Republic itself is a philosophical poem, especially with the allegory of the Cave and the myth of Er, the latter of which directly follows this passage. S/P does concede that if poetry can make a strong case for its moral virtue, then it would be allowed back into his republic, so I’m not sure his position is quite as extreme as it first appears. He also admits that “a certain friendship for Homer, and shame before him, which has possessed me since childhood, prevents me from speaking. For he seems to have been the first teacher and leader of all these fine tragic things” (595c).
The Republic closes with one of the most visually stunning and lyrical passages in the whole dialogue, the Myth of Er. The video below explains the myth in more detail, but in essence it’s an account of the afterlife, which involves a journey through either heaven or hell to a Spindle of Necessity (like a big wheel of fortune). Here, the pilgrim encounters the “Daughters of Necessity, Fates – Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos – clad in white with wreaths on their heads, they sing to the Sirens’ harmony, Lachesis of what has been, Clotho of what is, and Atropos of what is going to be” (617c). We’re told that the pilgrims then pick lots to see who is first to choose which type of life on earth they would like to live, with the wiser heads whose sense of justice is in tact, like Odysseus, opting for humble lives and the unjust opting to become tyrants. In essence, the Myth of Er contains the Republic’s key question, “what sort of life will you choose?”
Influence & criticisms of the Republic
As well as writing works of great literary merit, notably the Republic, Plato also effectively created the framework of western philosophy. British-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said: “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” That’s not to say that philosophers after Plato haven’t made advances in various fields of knowledge, but simply that Plato was first and most magnificent. Also, that’s not to say that he has all the answers, but just that he asks most, if not all, of the important questions, and gets the reader to do the thinking. For example, one criticism that Aristotle levelled at Plato’s Republic was related to the abolition of property; for Aristotle, people only care about property when it belongs to them, and I would agree that some of Plato’s proposals do seems a bit naive about human nature.
After Aristotle, there’s evidence from the 1st century BC onwards of other philosophers commenting on Plato. These are called Platonists, while there is also a second tradition that has been divided by modern interpreters into the Middle Platonists and Neo-Platonists, who, beginning with Plotinus’ rethinking of Plato in the 3rd century AD, developed Plato’s thought in innovative ways. In turn, Neo-Platonists had a huge influence on Renaissance Italy and, by extension, the modern world. Machiavelli, the master of realpolitik, probably saw Plato as too idealistic. In response to the question, “Should a ruler be loved or feared?”, Machiavelli would have opted for fear as that’s something the ruler can control, whereas love relies on another person’s decisions.
Thomas Hobbes, under the influence of Galileo, tried to combine mathematics with political philosophy. Being a materialist, Hobbes was in effect an anti-Platonist, and chapter 46 of the Leviathan is devoted to criticism of immaterial substances in ancient Greek thought. Like Bertrand Russell later, Hobbes objected to the flight from the senses encapsulated in Plato’s theory of Forms. Like Hobbes, Kant was the great moral philosopher of his age, introducing the concept of the categorical imperative, meaning no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”. For him, one should not lie under any circumstances, so Plato’s noble lie would have been morally wrong to him. John Stuart Mill also objected to lying, but on the basis of its negative consequences.
As for more modern responses, Karl Marx was also in dialogue with Plato, and agreed with him in terms of the idea of the abolition of private property, but obviously took his communist philosophy in a different direction. One of Plato’s most fierce critics in the 20th century was British-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper, who in his influential work, The Open Society & Its Enemies, accused Plato of betraying Socrates by making him articulate views that sympathise with totalitarianism. Bernard Williams also eloquently criticised Plato’s city-soul analogy. All of the criticisms outlined above are valid, but the point is that Plato’s intent in writing dialogues was never to provide easy answers, or a blueprint for a utopian state; instead, he wants us to disagree and argue with him vigorously, as that process of thinking things through is philosophy itself.