Dialogue belonging to Plato’s middle period. It discusses justice and the ideal Republic, but it also presents Plato’s main metaphysical and epistemological ideas.

Setting

The Republic has the form of a continual narration by Socrates to an unknown person. The narrated conversation takes place at the day of the festival of Ventis in Piraeus, at the house of the rich businessman Cephalus. Cephalus and his son Polemarchus, but mostly the sophist Thrasymachus concerse with Socrates in the first Book, while in the rest of the dialogue Socrates’ main interlocutors are Plato’s older brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus. All the characters are historical persons and the dramatic date of the dialogue is the Peloponnesian war, probably the early years of the Nikias’ peace (421 BC).

Structure and content

In the Republic the ethical and political, as well as the metaphysical philoposophy of Plato are extensively developed. This complex development is structured as a defense of the thesis that the life of the just man is preferable to the life of the unjust.

In the 1st Book of the Republic the discussion concerns the definition of justice. Socrates’ contribution is limited to the elenchus of his interlocutors, mainly of Trasymachus, according to whom justice is nothing more that the interest of the stronger.

But this dialectical contest does not satisfy Glaucon and Adeimantus, who, in the 2nd Book, ask Socrates (a) to expose his own conception of justice and (b) to argue in defense of his thesis that justice in itself is a good and a constituent of happy life. Socrates receives the demand of the two brothers as an invitation to a very long discussion, in which we may discern three parts.

In the 1st part (Books 2-4) Socrates proceeds by means of an analogy between the just soul and the just City. First, he designs the ideal City, which is comprised by three social classes: the productive class, the warriors and the rulers of the City. The warriors should dispose courage, the rulers should dispose wisdom. The happiness of the City is based on the concord/temperance of all three classes, which is achieved when the productive class and the warriors accept the leadership of the rulers. On this basis justice is defined as the occupation of each class with its own work, not meddling with the work of the other classes. Socrates, returning to the soul, discerns the parts in it too, reason, spirit and desire. The virtue of reason is wisdom, the virtue of spirit is courage and the unity of the soul is based on the recognition of the ruling ability of reason. Thus the analogy with the City is established and, correspondingly, justice is achieved when each part of the soul does that it is fit for, without intervening in the work of the other parts. Just actions are simply consequences of this state of harmony.

… justice is doing one's own work and not meddling with what isn't one's own. (433a - translation Grube rev. by Reeve)

At this point (beginning of Book 5), Socrates’ interlocutors intervene and demand two things: First, they ask Socrates to insist on some crucial issues regarding the just City, already presented in its initial description (412b-427c), particularly in his innovative opinions on the community of property, the abolition of family and the equal participation of women in the army and the government of the City –a demand satisfied in the next pages (451c-471b). Secondly, they question the feasibility of the City designed. Socrates’ answers declaring that the ideal City is feasible on the condition that the philosophers become rulers of the City or the rulers become philosophers (473d).

Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils, Glaucon, nor, I think, will the human race. And, until this happens, the constitution we've been describing in theory will never be born to the fullest extent possible or see the light of the sun. (473c-e)

The rest of Book 5 and Books 6 and 7 aim at the support and development of this thesis. Socrates shows why philosophers can rule and will rule well (473c-502c) and how should the guardians be educated in order to rule as philosophers (502c-541b). He presents his conception of the philosopher by making clear both the object of knowledge and the knowing process. Thus, the real objects of knowledge are not the changing objects of the senses, but the immutable Forms (475e-480a, 523a-525c). He presents the Form of the Good as the highest object of knowledge, a presentation culminating in the allegory of the cave (514a-517c), in which the relation of human beings with the Form of the Good is compared with the relation of persons in chains, turned towards the wall of a cave with the sun that shines outside. The access to the Form of the Good is the final achievement of a an extended educational process, in which the initial education (physical training and training in the arts –already presented in the initial Books: 375b-412b) is supplemented by mathematical and astronomical studies and, in a higher level, by dialectic.

In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty.Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it. (517b-c)

In the 8th Book Socrates returns to the examination of the injustice in the City and the soul and in the comparison of the unjust with the just life (Books 8-9). Complete injustice is presented as the term of a process of four stages of social and political decay in which the constitutions are examined in parallel with the corresponding prevailing human character (544a-576a). At a certain point the best constitution will break down and it will be succeeded by timocracy, a military society in which the pursuit of honor and power are predominant. The conflicts inherent to timocracy lead to its replacement by oligarchy, a constitution in which the major pursuit is the accumulation of wealth. In oligarchy the inevitable conflicts between rich and poor lead to its breakdown and to its succession by democracy, a constitution aiming at complete freedom. Unrestraint freedom leads to the abolition of democracy and the rise of tyranny. The tyrannical constitution is identified with complete injustice and, from this point on, Socrates focuses on the tyrant and shows that the tyrant is the most unjust person and at the same time the most unhappy one (576b-587b). With this conclusion the Socrates completes his long answer to Glaucon’s and Adeimantus’s challenge in Book 2.

The last Book of the Republic is loosely related with the previous argument. In its first part (595a-608b), Socrates returns to the criticism of poetry and, more generally, of imitative arts, that he had already undertaken in the initial Books (376c-398b) and he shows that poetic creation are mere “imitations of imitations” since they imitate the objects of the senses which are already imitations of the Ideas. Next (608c ff) he relates justice with the immortality of the soul and finally, through the Myth of Er (615b-621d), he presents the rewards of the just person and the punishmentof the unjust in this life as well as in the life after-death.

Interpretative comments

The Republic has been considered as the most monumental elaboration on political philosophy. Nonetheless, the discussion on the political society, in the Republic is introduced as a means for the examination of justice in the soul. Thus, it has been maintained that the ideal Republic does not constitute Plato’s political theory but merely a device for the development of Plato’s moral theory. But this approach fails to explain the length and the completeness of the political discussion. The whole problem is probably anachronistic, as, not only in Plato, but generally in classical Greek thought, the question “how is it worthy to live?” constitutes at the same time both the main moral and the main political question, not recognizing any sort of limits between moral and political thought.

The political theory of the Republic has some obvious totalitarian features, which had already been criticized in antiquity (Aristotle) and also, of course, in the context of modern liberalism. But the anti-democratic character of the Republic should not prevent us to acknowledge the crucial questions which make the Republic a foundational work of political thought: How can the political society deal with its structural internal conflicts? How can promote the pursuit of living well? Which is the role of knowledge in the above, how knowledge is achieved and how it acquires practical power? The questions of the Republic remain always open and constitute the critical challenges of political philosophy and of democratic thought.

Author: Spyros Benetatos
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Annas, J. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic. Oξφόρδη, 1981.
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