10 Things You Should Know About The Republic by Plato

10 Things You Should Know About The Republic by Plato

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  1. Of the many works attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the Republic continues to be one of his most popular. While any attempt to create a brief summary of the Republic and all its important aspects will be inadequate, you may find some of the following comments to be useful as preliminary stepping stones toward a more comprehensive reading of the material.

    1. The Socratic Method

    Plato is the author of the Republic, but Socrates is its star of the first magnitude. Socrates actually lived in ancient Athens, but everything we know about him is derived from secondary sources, since he himself never wrote any literature of which we are aware. Thus, it is through his student Plato that we are able to surmise that Socrates’ preferred mode of philosophizing was via the use of dialectic, or what we sometimes refer to as the Socratic Method—a form of discourse that seeks the truth by engaging in conversation with others and scrutinizing commonly held opinions. This is an important point to understand for those who are unfamiliar with Plato’s work. When you first crack open the pages of the Republic, you must be aware that you will be reading a dialogue and not a sophisticated treatise.

    2. Justice

    In Plato’s Republic it is the idea of justice that serves as the source for the ensuing discourse between Socrates, his companion Glaucon, and several other young men of Athens. Before too long it becomes apparent that justice is not something that can easily be defined. There is much disagreement among the interlocutors as to whether justice is strength over others, the honoring of contracts, or being a friend to friends and an enemy to enemies. Socrates, however, cleverly pares down each of these definitions and questions whether any of them is capable of providing an adequate meaning of justice. Indeed, by the end of Book I of the Republic no suitable definition of justice has been found. At this point, Socrates appears ready to abandon the investigation but is prevented from doing so by Glaucon, who appeals to Socrates’ philosophic disposition. Glaucon suspects there is something genuinely good about justice, but he admits his inability to defend his intuition. Only Socrates, he believes, can articulate such a defense.

    3, 4, and 5: Convention, Human Nature, and the Ring of Gyges

    Playing the part of the Devil’s advocate, Glaucon suggests that whatever else justice may be it is not something that is desired for its own sake. The only reason people behave justly, he says, is because they fear being punished for certain self-gratifying actions that are outlawed by society, such as stealing or committing adultery. Yet it is only convention, that is, a society’s particular traditions or laws, that makes some things just and others unjust. But the law’s enforcers cannot be everywhere at all times. Thus, if a person can commit an unjust act without being caught, why should he not do so?

    To illustrate his view of human nature, Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a farmer who discovered a magical ring with the power to make him invisible. In the end, he is corrupted by the ring’s power and uses it to assassinate his king, seduce the queen, and reign as king himself. Now imagine, Glaucon says, if two of these rings existed, and one was given to a just man while the other to an unjust man. In time, he argues, the just man would quickly become indistinguishable from the unjust man.

    Justice therefore is not inherently good or desirable, but merely an impediment created by society to prevent people from pursuing their innate desires. Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates is to present an argument in favor of justice as something that is at all times good and desirable for its own sake.

    6. The City in Speech

    Socrates suggests that he and the others have been unsuccessful in understanding justice because they wrongly narrowed their focus to the individual person. Ostensibly, then, one’s scope should expand to include multiple people rather than the single individual. One way of accomplishing this is to examine an entire city of people.  However, because justice is already embedded within existing cities, it is difficult to unearth. Socrates therefore advises that an effort be made to create a city in speech, so that justice can be captured at the very moment it comes into being. While one might assume that Socrates intends to produce something akin to a municipal blueprint, the city that results from speech turns out to be very different than anything that resembles Athens or any other Greek polis. Instead, the City in Speech is divided into three unusual, hierarchical classes, each of which corresponds with the three elements of the human soul: passion, spiritedness, and reason.  Thus, if justice can be found in the proper arrangement of these strange classes belonging to the City in Speech, then we might, by comparison, also be able to locate it within the essence of man.

    7. Philosophy versus Politics

    Certainly one of the most fascinating relations presented in the Republic is the inherent tension between philosophy and politics. Indeed, as Allan Bloom observed, in this sense the Republic prefigures Socrates’ own confrontation with the laws of Athens—a confrontation that ends with Athens putting Socrates to death. Philosophy poses a danger to the city and its politics because it questions their underlying foundations; and in so doing, it threatens to erode the conventions that have contributed to that society’s stability and continuity. In short, philosophy contains something of a revolutionary spirit within it, and revolutions are the bane of established communities.

    8. The Allegory of the Cave

    But there is another aspect to this tension, namely, that philosophy tends to draw away from earthly concerns. Politics necessarily concerns itself with the façade of the material world, while philosophy seeks to discover what lies behind the veil. Socrates’ famous Allegory of the Cave is a metaphorical story intended to illustrate this relationship. In brief, there is a cave in which many people dwell all their lives. They are shackled to a bench and compelled to stare straight ahead. Behind them is a large fire as well as several puppeteers who use the light of the fire to cast shadows onto the wall in front of the prisoners. This, says Socrates, is the world as most of us see it. It is the world of opinion and not truth. The philosopher, however, is the cave dweller who frees himself from his bonds, leaves the cave and its manmade shadows, and basks in the sunlight of unadulterated truth.

    But Socrates surprises Glaucon by insisting that the philosopher must leave the sunlit paradise and be willing to descend back into the cave of flame and shadow; for it is only the philosopher who is capable of distinguishing between truth and the phantoms of opinion. And if any society is going to be a good and just society, then it must be guided in by those who possess knowledge of what is truly good and just. Thus, the philosopher’s return to the cave symbolizes the inception of political philosophy, that branch of inquiry that has as its end the discovery of the best regime.

    9. Education

    Author William J. Bennett frequently invokes Plato as the philosopher who compels us to confront two of society’s most important questions: that is, what are we to teach our children and whom do we allow to teach them? These questions arise in the Republic as Socrates presents his argument in favor of bringing about and preserving the best regime. Children are the osmotic vessels destined to become both the future citizens and leaders of their political community. Thus, the internal ordering of their souls will determine the public harmony of society itself. In short, good children give rise to good cities; bad children to bad cities.

    10. The Myth of Er

    Plato’s Republic ends with an uninterrupted monologue delivered by Socrates. In it, he tells the story of a man named Er who dies and whose soul travels to the afterlife. Er’s spiritual passage invites readers to reflect on the importance of the choices we make in life. In Socrates’ telling of the story, Er plays the part of something like an expeditionary scout, who was allowed to witness the system of rewards and punishments governed by the unchanging laws of a timeless cosmic order. What he discovers is that eternal happiness depends upon the life well lived, which is the life of philosophic contemplation. In other words, it is not enough to live a just life according merely to habit. Those who do good deeds without understanding why their deeds are truly good may find themselves flailing in the afterlife alongside tyrants and murderers. Socrates sets a very high threshold, indeed.


    The foregoing comments are intended to provide you with merely a preview of some of the ideas you can expect to come across in Plato’s Republic. Actually reading the book for yourself will likely prove to be one of the greatest intellectual challenges in your life. But if read properly, it will likely also prove to be one the greatest intellectual benefits in your life.

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