Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

14. Republic

Republic is misleadingly titled. The Greek name of the dialogue is Politeia, which is the standard word for constitution or ordering of the political structure: ’political order’ would give a better sense of what Plato has in mind. There is a further and deeper complication. Once you start reading the dialogue you find that it is primarily an inquiry into justice, conceived as a virtue or moral excellence of individual persons. The philosophical task it undertakes is the project of showing that justice so conceived is in the best interests of the just person, even if it brings nothing ordinarily recognizable as happiness or success, or indeed (as with the sentence of death passed on Socrates) quite the opposite. Thus Republic carries forward the thinking about justice begun in early dialogues such as Apology, Crito and Gorgias. Why, then, the title’s suggestion that it is a work of political rather than moral philosophy?

One way of answering this question is to attend to the formal structure of Republic. After book I, an inconclusive Socratic dialogue which none the less introduces, particularly in the conversation with Thrasymachus, many of the themes pursued in the rest of the work, the interlocutors agree to take an indirect approach to the problem of individual justice: they will consider the nature of justice and injustice in the polis, that is the (city-)state, in the hope that it will provide an illuminating analogy. Books II–IV spell out the class structure required in a ’good city’. It is suggested that in such a state political justice consists in the social harmony achieved when each class (economic, military, governing) performs its own and only its own function. This model is then applied to the individual soul (see Psychē). Justice and happiness for an individual are secured when each of the parts of the soul (appetite, emotion, reason) performs the role it should in mutual harmony. In working out the idea of psychic harmony, Plato formulates a conception of the complexity of psychological motivation, and of the structure of mental conflict, which leaves the simplicities of Socratic intellectualism far behind, and one which has reminded interpreters of Freudian theory, particularly in books VIII–IX. Here he examines different forms of unjust political order (notably oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and corresponding conditions of order, or rather increasing disorder, in the soul.

Political theory therefore plays a large part in the argument of the dialogue, even though the ultimate focus is the moral health of the soul, as is confirmed by the conclusion of book IX. Socrates suggests that it may not matter whether we can actually establish a truly just political order, provided we use the idea of it as a paradigm for founding a just city within our own selves.

This account of Republic omits the central books V–VII. These explore the notion of political order much further than is necessary for the purposes of inquiry into individual justice. This is where Plato develops the notion of a communistic governing class, involving the recruitment of talented women as well as men, the abolition of the family, and institution of a centrally controlled eugenic breeding programme. And it is where, in order to meet the problem of how the idea of the just city he has been elaborating might ever be put into practice, he has Socrates introduce philosopher-rulers:

Unless either philosophers rule in our cities or those whom we now call rulers and potentates engage genuinely and adequately in philosophy, and political power and philosophy coincide, there is no end, my dear Glaucon, to troubles for our cities, nor I think for the human race.

(Republic 473c–d)

What Plato perhaps has most in mind when he makes Socrates speak of ’troubles’ is as well as civil war the corruption he sees in all existing societies. As he acknowledges, this makes the emergence of an upright philosopher-ruler an improbability – and incidentally leaves highly questionable the prospects of anyone but a Socrates developing moral order within the soul when society without is infected with moral disorder.

Here we touch on another broadly political preoccupation of Republic, worked out at various places in the dialogue. It offers among other things a radical critique of Greek cultural norms. This is highlighted in the censorship of Homer proposed in books II and III, and in the onslaught on the poets, particularly the dramatists, in book X, and in their expulsion from the ideal city. But these are only the more memorable episodes in a systematic attack on Greek beliefs about gods, heroes and the departed, on the ethical assumptions underlying music, dance and gymnastics (see Mimēsis), and again erotic courtship, and on medical and judicial practice. Republic substitutes its own austere state educational programme, initially focused on the training of the emotions, but subsequently (in books VI and VII) on mathematics and philosophy. Plato sees no hope for society or the human race without a wholesale reorientation, fostered by an absolute political authority, of all the ideals on which we set our hearts and minds.

Republic itself is written in such a way as to require the reader to be continually broadening perspectives on the huge range of concerns it embraces, from the banalities of its opening conversation between Socrates and the aged Cephalus to its Platonist explication of the very notion of philosophy in the epistemology and metaphysics of books V–VII. At the apex of the whole work Plato sets his presentation of the Form of the Good, as the ultimate goal of the understanding that philosophy pursues by use of the hypothetical method. The dialogue offers a symbol of its own progress in the potent symbol of the cave. We are like prisoners chained underground, who can see only shadows of images flickering on the wall. What we need is release from our mental shackles, and a conversion which will enable us gradually to clamber out into the world above and the sunlight. For then, by a sequence of painful reorientations, we may be able to grasp the Good and understand how it explains all that there is.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Republic. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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