Republic [Politeia] Plato
Greek philosophical dialogues, written c. 3857-60 b.c.
Regarded as Plato's most important work, the Republic has long been studied as a seminal text of the Western literary and philosophical canon. In this group of philosophical dialogues, Plato uses a conversational prose format to explore the nature of society, seeking to define the characteristics of an ideal society, or republic. Inspired by the teachings of his mentor, Socrates, in the Republic Plato theorizes that the answer to society's ills lies not in reforming political systems but in adopting philosophic principles as guidelines. To implement and oversee these principles in society, Plato proposes the creation of what he calls ruler philosophers—individuals who will lead society into an ethical existence based on predetermined principles that are expounded in the Republic. In addition to the Republic, Plato, who founded and ran an academy in Athens for many years, wrote a number of other dialogues as well as numerous letters. Because of the influence of the ideas expressed in various dialogues, including the Republic, Plato has come to occupy a key position in the history of western philosophy and is often called the father of philosophic idealism. Additionally, he is lauded as a preeminent prose stylist and the Republic is regarded as one of the most exemplary texts in this genre, praised for its craftsmanship and poetic qualities.
A citizen of Athens, Plato was born in approximately 428 b.c. and lived in a period of political tumult marked by the recent death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles in 429 b.c. and the strife of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 b.c. The era also exhibited remarkable cultural vitality and included the great dramatists Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, of whom Plato was a younger contemporary. Plato was descended from a distinguished family of statesmen; his mother's cousin Critias and his maternal uncle Charmides, both portrayed in eponymous dialogues, belonged to the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchs who ruled Athens in cooperation with Sparta after the Peloponnesian War. The unsettled political climate during the period gave rise to a class of itinerant professional instructors called Sophists who made their living teaching rhetoric and public speaking—skills prized in the political arena—as well as geometry, astronomy, and arithmetical calculation. Socrates—whom the young Plato met while the elder Athenian discoursed in the streets and homes of the city on topics related to the virtuous life—objected to the aims of the Sophists, asserting that they manipulated language for their own ends, obfuscating and confusing in order to succeed in argumentation, rather than elucidating and searching for truth. Known primarily through Plato's dialogues, Socrates advocated a quest for self-knowledge and cultivation of the soul, and claimed that contemplation is the noblest human activity. Plato's own career as a writer spanned the greater part of his life. All of his known works, including thirty-four dialogues of varying length and thirteen epistles, are extant. Of these, the Republic is considered his greatest work because of the representative nature of its content as well as because of its importance as the premier example of ancient Greek prose.
Plot and Major Characters
Composed as a dramatic dialogue among various characters, the principal among them Socrates, the Republic is divided into ten main books. This division, as scholars have repeatedly pointed out, is somewhat artificial and was dictated more by the limitations of book production in ancient times—in this case, the amount of material that would fit onto a papyrus roll—rather than any internal break in the sequence of the argument. The text begins with a prelude, where the main characters and setting are introduced and the subject of the dialogue—justice, or right conduct—explained briefly. In addition to Socrates, who is the main narrator of the dialogue, other characters include Glaucon and Adeimantus, elder brothers of Plato, and Polemarchus, a resident of Athens at whose house the conversation takes place. Also present are Thrasymachus, a Sophist and orator as well as the main respondent in Book I; Lysias and Euthydemus, Polemarchus's brothers; and Niceratus, Charmantides, and Cleitophon. Ostensibly a discussion about the nature of justice, expounded on first by Thrasymachus, who states the Sophist position that justice and its related conventions are rules that were imposed on society by those in power, the rest of the dialogue is mainly a response from Socrates to this statement. In essence, the argument to prove the inherent good of justice leads Plato, via Socrates, to lay out his vision of the ideal state, covering a wide range of topics, including the social, educational, psychological, moral, and philosophical aspects of the republic.
The main intention of the Republic is to define the principles that govern an ideal society. In doing so, Plato touches upon many important ideas about education, ethics, politics, and morality in this text. Scholars have pointed out that the main argument of the Republic is partly a response to the political unrest and instability Plato witnessed in contemporary Athenian society. Following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens became a democracy of sorts, led mostly by laymen, who, in Plato's view, tended to implement policies based more on popular demand rather than necessity or principle. Thus, Plato developed a perspective that viewed all contemporary forms of government as corrupt, theorizing that the only hope for finding true justice both for society and the individual lies in philosophy, and that “mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power, or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers.” This is the central theme of the Republic. In the context of this premise, Plato touches upon several major issues, focusing the most significant discussions on the nature and definition of ethics, education, and the organization of society and politics, as well as religion and philosophy. In contrast to the Sophists, who advocated the primacy of rhetoric over moral training, Plato proposes the creation of an educational system that focuses on the molding of character, with the ultimate goal of the educator being not just imparting knowledge, but also the ability “to turn the mind's eye to the light so that it can see for itself.” According to Plato, one of the main problems of his society was the inability to distinguish true reality from reflections or images of reality. Plato employs his famous allegory of the cave to illustrate how mankind learns and can be mislead by the manner in which he learns. Plato's preferred educational system strictly controls the upbringing of the ruling class in order to help them differentiate between appearance and reality and form correct views. He advocates the study of mathematics and abstract ideas rather than art, music, or literature because the latter deal with representation of ideas, not ideas themselves; he even goes so far as to advocate censorship of art, when necessary, in the service of proper education. Another powerful focus in the Republic is the discussion of justice. Responding primarily to the Sophists' position, that morality is important only because of the social and personal consequences that follow, Plato contends that morality and justice are key components of an ideal society and that they must underlie all areas of human interaction.
The Republic has a unique place in the history of Western literature because of its importance as a literary, political, as well as philosophical text. Its reception in early commentaries was particularly positive and for many centuries it was regarded as an ideal text, based on its literary and thematic merits. A. E. Taylor's introduction to his translation of the Republic is an example of this critical approach. Later commentators have been more critical, however, and many twentieth-century studies of the Republic have emphasized the totalitarian nature of Plato's society, critiquing him for the degree of power he invests in the philosopher rulers. In her introduction to the Republic Julia Annas remarks on the power of the text and the persuasiveness of Plato's assessments, noting that in some ways, the systematic treatment of such important subjects as morality, politics, and knowledge is “designed to sweep the reader along,” often leading first-time readers to either accept the premise of the text without question or to reject it entirely. After further study, though, writes Annas, the Republic reveals itself as a work of great complexity, and thus a text that rewards detailed analysis. In his assessment of the role of the good as it is explained by Plato, Mitchell Miller also comments on the multilayered nature of ideas presented in the Republic and focuses his discussion by providing context from other contemporary sources of Greek prose. Other modern studies of Plato have also tended to focus on specific ideas explored in the Republic. For example, R. E. Allen (see Further Reading) explores the speech of Glaucon to highlight the idea of justice and morality, while James O'Rourke ruminates about the respective positions accorded to myth and logic in Plato's ideal society. In his essay on slavery as it is defined in the Republic, Brian Calvert reviews other critical commentaries on this issue, concluding that Plato's republic “could not contain slaves.” Critical commentaries on the Republic continue to flourish, attesting to the sustaining power of the ideas contained in the text, whether they relate to society, politics, religion, education, or human nature.
In The Republic, Plato, speaking through his teacher Socrates, sets out to answer two questions. What is justice? Why should we be just? Book I sets up these challenges. The interlocutors engage in a Socratic dialogue similar to that found in Plato’s earlier works. While among a group of both friends and enemies, Socrates poses the question, “What is justice?” He proceeds to refute every suggestion offered, showing how each harbors hidden contradictions. Yet he offers no definition of his own, and the discussion ends in aporia—a deadlock, where no further progress is possible and the interlocutors feel less sure of their beliefs than they had at the start of the conversation. In Plato’s early dialogues, aporia usually spells the end. The Republic moves beyond this deadlock. Nine more books follow, and Socrates develops a rich and complex theory of justice.
When Book I opens, Socrates is returning home from a religious festival with his young friend Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers. On the road, the three travelers are waylaid by Adeimantus, another brother of Plato, and the young nobleman Polemarchus, who convinces them to take a detour to his house. There they join Polemarchus’s aging father Cephalus, and others. Socrates and the elderly man begin a discussion on the merits of old age. This discussion quickly turns to the subject of justice.
Cephalus, a rich, well-respected elder of the city, and host to the group, is the first to offer a definition of justice. Cephalus acts as spokesman for the Greek tradition. His definition of justice is an attempt to articulate the basic Hesiodic conception: that justice means living up to your legal obligations and being honest. Socrates defeats this formulation with a counterexample: returning a weapon to a madman. You owe the madman his weapon in some sense if it belongs to him legally, and yet this would be an unjust act, since it would jeopardize the lives of others. So it cannot be the case that justice is nothing more than honoring legal obligations and being honest.
At this point, Cephalus excuses himself to see to some sacrifices, and his son Polemarchus takes over the argument for him. He lays out a new definition of justice: justice means that you owe friends help, and you owe enemies harm. Though this definition may seem different from that suggested by Cephalus, they are closely related. They share the underlying imperative of rendering to each what is due and of giving to each what is appropriate. This imperative will also be the foundation of Socrates’s principle of justice in the later books. Like his father’s view, Polemarchus’s take on justice represents a popular strand of thought—the attitude of the ambitious young politician—whereas Cephalus’s definition represented the attitude of the established, old businessman.
Socrates reveals many inconsistencies in this view. He points out that, because our judgment concerning friends and enemies is fallible, this credo will lead us to harm the good and help the bad. We are not always friends with the most virtuous individuals, nor are our enemies always the scum of society. Socrates points out that there is some incoherence in the idea of harming people through justice.
All this serves as an introduction to Thrasymachus, the Sophist. We have seen, through Socrates’s cross-examination of Polemarchus and Cephalus, that the popular thinking on justice is unsatisfactory. Thrasymachus shows us the nefarious result of this confusion: the Sophist’s campaign to do away with justice, and all moral standards, entirely. Thrasymachus, breaking angrily into the discussion, declares that he has a better definition of justice to offer. Justice, he says, is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger. Though Thrasymachus claims that this is his definition, it is not really meant as a definition of justice as much as it is a delegitimization of justice. He is saying that it does not pay to be just. Just behavior works to the advantage of other people, not to the person who behaves justly. Thrasymachus assumes here that justice is the unnatural restraint on our natural desire to have more. Justice is a convention imposed on us, and it does not benefit us to adhere to it. The rational thing to do is ignore justice entirely.