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Republic

Genre - Philosophical or Socratic Dialogue

After the death of Socrates, a number of his associates tried to re-create in a literary medium the philosophical conversations which he had engaged in with his followers. Their purpose was to give a more accurate picture of Socrates than that presented by his detractors and also, as in the case of Plato, to use these re-created conversations as a vehicle for philosophic investigation. Xenophon wrote a work called Recollections [of Socrates], which contains Socratic conversations interspersed with narrative by the author. In addition, Xenophon wrote a Symposium 'Dinner Party', which shares the same title and theme (love) with a Platonic dialogue, but the dramatic setting and the characters (except for Socrates) are different. A follower of Socrates named Aeschines also wrote Socratic dialogues, of which only fragments remain. Of course, the best known works in this genre are the twenty-three dialogues written by Plato, of which the Republic is an important example.

Sophists, Athens and Plato

The Sophists tried to teach their students how to live the most effective kind of life. They saw worldly success as the way to happiness. Socrates, however, was disturbed by the Sophists' emphasis on material values and by the amorality of their teachings. He believed that man must make morality his ultimate concern in order to achieve true happiness.

Plato too was troubled by Sophistic doctrines and by the way the average Athenian let himself be guided by values, whether Sophistic or traditional, which he did not subject to critical analysis. Plato believed that the Sophistic view of knowledge as subjective and their stress on the relativity of truth undermined morality. This skepticism about the possibility of knowing the truth led Sophists to teach that there was no infallible guide for human action beyond the principle of self-interest. It was clear to Plato that the average man, who could not explain to himself or to others why the rules of morality should be obeyed in a given situation, would certainly follow the dictates of his self-interest rather than any external moral standard. To Plato, this was a dangerous state of affairs, which leads to moral chaos. Plato believed that morality must be based on objective truth and must be reconciled with self-interest: that is, morality must be shown to be in the interest of the individual.

Plato also disagreed with the Sophistic view of human nature and society. According to some Sophists, the most basic law of nature was that the strong the weak.1 In this view, this law of nature quite properly overrode any law of human creation (nomos) seeking to protect the weak against the strong. This doctrine is based on the idea that human society is just an extension of the animal world. In fact, irrational animal nature was used by some Sophists as a model for human behavior.2 Irrationality is seen as a dominant element in human nature. An example of this view can be found in Thucydides's account of the Corcyraean revolution (3.84):

Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature,...showed itself proudly in its true colors, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice.3

Plato, however, saw man's true nature as rational and believed that civilized society must be organized, and civilized life conducted according to rational principles.

1Cf. Thucydides's "Melian Dialogue".
2Cf. Pheidippides's use of the model of rooster society in the Clouds.
3All quotations from Thucydides are from Warner's Penguin translation.

Although Sophistic doctrines aimed at producing happiness for man, Plato believed that they produced the exact opposite because of the erroneous view of human nature implicit in them. Human happiness can result only from the fulfillment of man's real nature. In Plato's view, the average man mistakenly identified his self-interest with the satisfaction of his irrational desires, whereas man's real self-interest and fulfillment of his true nature lay in the control of the irrational desires by reason. Therefore, Plato was determined to show that it is a violation of man's true nature to allow irrational desires to dominate reason. He believed that the supremacy of the irrational results in immorality and unhappiness. If this could be established, morality would be shown to have its sanction in human nature. It would be clear that wrongdoers automatically suffer because of their immorality and that morality brings its own reward. This line of reasoning would provide the most compelling argument for moral behavior.

But Plato's concern with morality led him beyond the individual to a consideration of political theory. Morality involves interaction with others and therefore the organization of society and the nature of government are also central issues. He had lived under a democratic form of government at Athens and believed that it had failed Athens at a critical moment in the last years of the Peloponnesian War. Plato saw the Athenian democracy as an amateur government with citizens at the same time pursuing their own livelihoods and participating in political decision-making. The army was a citizen militia, which also required the individual citizen to serve a double role. In his mind, another danger in this system was that the economic self-interest of those in power often influenced their political decisions. There was a tendency, not only in Athens, but throughout the Greek world, to view the exercise of political power as benefiting the ruler(s) rather than the ruled. Thucydides had already pointed out how self-interest adversely affected the quality of leadership. After his praise of Pericles's disinterested guidance of the democracy, Thucydides points out how the leadership of his successors degenerated (2.65):

After [Pericles's] death his foresight with regard to the war became even more evident. For Pericles had said that Athens would be victorious if she bided her time and took care of her navy....But his successors did the exact opposite, and in other matters which apparently had no connection with war private ambition and private profit led to policies which were bad both for the Athenians themselves and for their allies.

Degeneration of leadership is brought about by the leader identifying the interest of his own office with his own profit and not with the welfare of the governed. For Plato, economic self-interest and political power must be kept separate and not be allowed to work in combination to the disadvantage of the state.

Plato believed that not only the democracy, but also the oligarchy of the Thirty had gone astray because political leaders, blinded by their own self-interests, neglected the interest of the state as a whole. Political power seemed to attract persons who lacked the prerequisite qualities of leadership: intelligence, integrity and selfless concern for the welfare of the governed. Intelligence is central to the Platonic view of leadership. Qualification for the wielding of political power must be based on the possession of superior intelligence, not superior physical force. From intelligence springs a knowledge of moral truths and a correct vision of the function of political power as serving the interests of the governed. The interests of the state must have priority over the interests of any individual. Pericles had already expounded the idea that the interests of the individual citizen were best served by the success of the whole state. Thucydides has Pericles say (2.60):

My own opinion is that when the whole state is on the right course it is a better thing for each separate individual than when private interests are satisfied but the state as a whole is going downhill. However well off a man may be in his private life, he will still be involved in the general ruin, if his country is destroyed; whereas, so long as the state itself is secure, individuals have a much greater chance of recovering from their private misfortunes.

In this view, harmony is the salvation of the state and the individual, while division fostered by the conflict of private interests with those of the state is the ruin of same. This is the central issue which Plato addresses in the Republic when he deals with the organization of the state.

Reading the Republic

Naturally, your primary task in studying the Republic is to learn and understand what Plato says in this work. But in order to derive the most benefit from reading the Republic, you must first put Plato's views in the context of what you have learned about Athens the sections on tragedy, comedy, the Apology, and Thucydides. Plato's ideas do not exist in an historical vacuum; he was trying to deal with contemporary problems. Secondly, since Plato's views involve universal human concerns, which span the centuries between his time and ours, that is, morality and politics, we should not hesitate to examine his ideas critically and measure them against our own experience, feelings and common sense. Certainly it would violate the spirit of Socratic inquiry to accept uncritically everything that Plato says in the Republic. Although Plato was a brilliant philosopher and writer and was able to identify the most significant problems of human existence, he was also a human being. His ideas are not always convincing nor even consistent; his arguments are not always supported by impeccable logic.

In reading the Republic become actively engaged in the philosophic process. Imagine yourself as one of the interlocutors in the conversation led by Socrates at Cephalus's house. Examine Plato's ideas critically. Formulate questions about ideas which puzzle you. Try to answer them yourself and bring them up in class for discussion. Even if a satisfactory answer can't be found, at least you've benefited from an active attempt to understand. Intellectual exercise of this kind can be quite rewarding and even enjoyable.

To learn more about how to understand Plato's Republic, see Susan Gorman's Teaching Plato in Translation - The Republic: What is the Function of Book One?.

EXERCISES FOR READING, COMPREHENSION AND INTERPRETATION

Book 1.327-3474
The dramatic setting of the Republic is the house of Cephalus, a wealthy resident alien involved in manufacturing. His son Polemarchus has a prominent part in the opening portion of the dialogue after the departure of Cephalus. We know from a speech written by Polemarchus's brother Lysias, a famous speech writer, that some seventeen years after the dramatic date5 of this dialogue, during the rule of the Thirty, that the wealth of Polemarchus and Lysias inherited from their father attracted the attention of the Thirty, which resulted in the death of the former and the exile of the latter. Since the Republic was written well after these events, what view do you think Plato intends his reader to have of Cephalus's interest in the accumulation of wealth and his praise of its advantages (330-331)? What definition of justice does Socrates formulate based on the comments of Cephalus and how does he refute it (331)? Are telling the truth and paying what is owed just acts? If so, why is this definition of justice found inadequate?

4The numbers refer to sections of the Republic and usually appear in the margins of the text (sometimes at the top of the page).
5The dramatic date of a literary composition is the time when the event described is supposed to have taken place as opposed to the actual date of composition.

Is Polemarchus's definition of justice, derived from the poet Simonides, an improvement over the preceding definition (332)? Explain your answer. How does Polemarchus's view of justice show that he is his father's son (333)? What problem does Socrates see in Polemarchus's definition of justice as "helping one's friends and harming one's enemies" (334)? Give one specific example of elenchus involving a reductio ad absurdum argument6 which Socrates uses to demolish Polemarchus's definition of justice (334). How does Socrates define harm (334)? Why does he believe that it is never just to harm anyone (335)?

6Reductio ad absurdum is a technique of argument which disproves an hypothesis by pointing out the absurdity of its logical conclusion.

Why is Thrasymachus angry with Socrates (336-337)? What characteristic Socratic attitude and technique does he object to? What is Thrasymachus's definition of justice (338)? Explain the reductio ad absurdum argument used by Socrates in his refutation of this definition (339). What does Socrates's elenchus get Thrasymachus to say is an essential qualification of the ruler (340-341)? What kind of analogies does Thrasymachus use to illustrate this point (340-341)? According to Socrates what is the primary interest of any art and its practitioner? For example, what is the interest of the doctor and his art (342)?

According to Thrasymachus, what does his analogy of the herdsman prove about the main interest of the ruler (343)? What is his view of the comparative profitability of justice and injustice (343-344)? What is Socrates's view of same (344)? According to Socrates, what does the analogy of the shepherd prove about the proper interest of the ruler (345)? Why is wage-earning not the true and proper interest of any art (346)? Why would decent men in an ideal state be unwilling to rule (347)? Under what conditions would a man of integrity accept power (347)?

Book 2.357-392
What are the three classes of goods outlined by Glaucon (357)? In which class does Socrates place justice and why does Glaucon disagree with this classification (358)? Explain how Glaucon will play the role of the devil's advocate in this section (358). What does he want to learn from Socrates about justice and injustice (358)? What view of justice does Glaucon as a devil's advocate present in his discourse on the Social Contract (359)? What does the story of Gyges seemingly illustrate about justice (359-360)? Why does Glaucon want to remove all considerations of reward from the analysis of justice and actually have the hypothetical just man suffer because of his justice (361)? According to Adeimantus, what arguments are usually put forward to children to convince them to be just (363)? What views of justice and injustice are presented by the poets (364)? What effect will these arguments and views have on young men (365)? What task does Adeimantus propose for Socrates (367)?

Where does Socrates propose to look for justice first? Why (368)? Why does a state come into existence in the first place (369)? What human needs are best satisfied by a state? Why is a state able to satisfy these needs better than any other manner of life (369)? Why ought a man keep to one occupation (370)? Where in the state are justice and injustice to be found (372)?

What problems does the introduction of luxuries cause for the hypothetical state under consideration (373)? Why is war the ultimate consequence of the luxurious state (373)? According to what principle is the army created (374)? Why does Socrates reject the notion of a citizen militia (374)?

What are the essential qualities which the Guardians7 must possess (375-376)? Why is knowledge important (376)? Of what will the elementary intellectual education of the Guardians consist (377)? What objections does Socrates have to the stories told by Hesiod and Homer (377)? Why does he have these objections (378)? How can these stories be altered to become acceptable (379-380)? Identify what Socrates finds wrong with the following: the dream sent to Agamemnon by Zeus (382), myths about the underworld (387), the lamentations of Achilles and Priam (388), the laughter of the gods at Hephaestus (389), Achilles's threat to Apollo and dragging of Hector's body (391). How can deception be justified in certain circumstances? (389).

7The term "Guardians" is here used to refer to the army only. Later in the Republic this term will include both the rulers and the army. The latter will be specifically referred to as "Auxiliaries".

Books 3.414-416 & 4.419-421
Plato8 is fond of using myths of his own creation in his dialogues. In this section he presents two of these myths. The first use recalls existing Greek stories of various peoples having literally sprung from the earth of the area they inhabited. The second myth tells of men having different kinds of metals in their bodies and is apparently inspired by the metals in Hesiod's myth which characterize the various ages of mankind: gold, silver, bronze and iron. As in the case of Hesiod's myth, Plato's story is clearly allegorical; that is, elements in the myth stand for something else beyond themselves.

8It is the general consensus that after book 1, which presents Socrates in his historical role of using elenchus to point out the contradictions implicit in various definitions, he is being generally used as a mouthpiece for Plato's doctrines.

Although Plato knows that these myths are not literally true, he refers to them as "noble fictions", for in his mind they are justified by their serving a morally valid purpose in his ideal state (414). What do the different metals in Plato's myth represent? What purpose does each myth serve (414-415)?

What are the two primary duties of the Auxiliaries (415)? Why is the education of the Auxiliaries so important (416)? What kind of life is required of the Guardians (416-417)? Why does Plato require this life for the Guardians (416-417)? What objection does Adeimantus make to this life (419)? How does Socrates answer Adeimantus's objection (420)?

Book 4.427-444
With reference to the state, what is wisdom and who must possess this virtue (428)? Answer the same question with regard to courage and temperance (429-431). What then is justice with reference to the state (432-434)? Plato then moves to the question of justice in the individual. He assumes that there is no difference between a just man and a just society (435). Do you agree with this? Explain your answer. What parallelism does Plato believe exists between the state and the individual (435)? What are the three elements of the individual soul and what is the nature of each element (439)? With which class in the state is each of these three elements linked (441)?

What are the true functions of each element of the soul (441)? Define the virtues of wisdom, courage and temperance with reference to the soul (441-442). Define justice in the individual soul (443). What meaning does the metaphor of musical harmony have for justice (443)? How has justice been shown to be an obvious good for the individual like health (444)?

Books 6.509-511 & 7.514-521
In the "Divided Line" and "Allegory of the Cave" Plato presents an illustration of his theory of knowledge. What does the unequal division of the Line and of each part (A-B, C-D) again in the same proportion symbolize (509-510)? Through what means does one apprehend the world of appearances? the intelligible world? What is the crucial difference between the field of intelligible reality studied by dialectic and the subject matter of the sciences (511)?

The "Allegory of the Cave" is referred to by Plato as a eikon 'likeness', which is in the form of an allegory describing and commenting upon the human condition, its defects and potentialities. Explain what each of the following elements in the story of the prisoners in the cave represent in Platonic philosophy: prison, prisoners, shadows on wall, the escaped prisoner, the outside world and the Sun, ascent from cave to upper world (517). Why is it worthwhile to achieve a knowledge of the Good (517)? Why are those who have gained this knowledge reluctant to become involved in the affairs of men? (517)? What is the basic difference between justice in the real world and Justice itself (the essential form of Justice) (517)? In Plato's view, what is education (518)? Why do some men of intelligence not achieve wisdom (519)? What special responsibility do men of wisdom have (520)? What is the only condition in which ideal government can exist (520)?

Book 8.543-561
What determines the nature and quality of any government (544)? What begins the degeneration of the ideal government (546)? What is the character of the ruling class in a timocracy (547)? What kind of character does the timocrat have and on what does he base his claim to office (548-549)?

What qualifies a man for office in an oligarchy (550)? What is wrong with such a qualification in Plato's view (551)? What are the most serious defects of an oligarchy as a form of government (551-552)? What kind of character does the oligarchical man have (553-554)?

Why does an oligarchy degenerate into a democracy (555-557)? What are the most significant characteristics of a democracy (557-558)? What kind of character does the democratic man have (559-561)? What is wrong with the democratic man playing multiple roles in the state (561)?

Book 10.613-620
In interpreting the "Myth of Er" there are two possibilities. Either Plato means this myth of his own invention to be taken literally, in which case he is asserting the fact of reincarnation, or he intends it to be understood figuratively. It seems more likely that he meant this story to be taken figuratively, since, as Julia Annas (An Introduction to Plato's Republic , Oxford 1982, 353) has pointed out, belief in reincarnation was by no means universal among Plato's contemporaries and his vision of the afterlife was not a commonly accepted one.

Who is Er? In what ways are the just and the unjust rewarded and punished (614-615)? For whom is an afterlife of punishment permanent (615)? Why? After a period of reward or punishment, what must the souls then do (617-618)? What life does the man who had drawn the first lot choose and what consequences does this choice have (619)? Why does he make such a wrong choice (619)? What beneficial effect did the suffering in the earth experienced by some souls have for their choice of their next life (619)? What must the souls do before entering a new life (621)? What is the main lesson which the "Myth of Er" teaches (620)?

Table of Contents > Next Section: Philosophical Background of the Hellenistic Age

 

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