I am trying to explain Plato’s Republic to a friend’s son for school. I am also teaching a chapter of it in one of my classes this semester. Should anyone else be interested, the following is a most basic outline and interpretation of the work.
It took me a few days, but this is roughly the email I sent him. He may never ask for my help again…
Plato’s work is extremely simple. The concepts are not, but his style breaks everything down to the essentials, and is thus easy to follow.
The main theme of The Republic is justice. In a dialogue that spans the entirety of the work, Plato aims, through the primary speaker, to reveal the importance of the philosopher in society and what his relationship to the city should be. Through his question/answer series he invents a political philosophy rooted in the idea of creating a city on principles of reason, and then dissects it in order to find a perfect definition of justice.
Yet, before justice can be defined, Plato outlines his reasons for needing to define or defend it. Thrasymachus, one of the members of the conversation, explains that justice is not always considered unquestionably beneficial. Justice, much like any qualifying term, is relative, in that it is measured against injustice, and one cannot exist or be defined without the other; since both stem from the same root, justice can have different connotations. Further, what is the pure definition of justice? Is there one? Or is it what the majority believe? To define justice it must be taken into consideration how it is currently being used. When individuals began believing that it was better to serve themselves than society as a whole, was this just? The conversation proceeds to question different beliefs and offers examples for examination.
The main speaker, Socrates, is obviously created to voice Plato’s thinking, and attempts to use the dialogue as a means of dispelling the notion of an absolute form of justice; it is not solely what benefits the stronger, but rather what benefits the most (which will actually also prove to be problematic in a bit). While justice changes with each situation, it does not alter in its goal. Thrasymachus, however, believes justice is versatile in a different way; he not only makes the assertion prevalent at the time that justice must serve the stronger, but further claims justice changes as the ruler sees fit and however it should serve him, promoting his own interest while keeping his subjects in a state of oppression. Thus, according to Thrasymachus, if it is dictated from above, it must be just, which would also mean that the subjects only conform to the ruler’s definition of justice, and do not take into account their own benefit, practicing “justice” against their will. Plato argues that such a definition is flawed; if justice is good and desirable, then it should be welcomed freely and has no need to be imposed on others. Imposed justice is not justice.
At this point two more characters interject into the conversation, Glaucon and Adeimantus, who bring up the points on the social contract theory of justice along with the idea of justice as a form of currency used to buy rewards in the afterlife. A man may behave unjustly, but as long as he performs the correct rituals of charity he is vindicated, which drives Socrates to further prove the meaning of true justice, or better stated, disprove faulty definitions.
However, even as Socrates continuously discredits these false ideas, Plato complicates the problem with which Socrates is faced by further having him probe the other speakers for more of their definitions. This methodology is perfectly intact as it forces the other speakers to make their strongest arguments first, and then, after having them rebuked, will have nothing with which to counterattack, leaving Socrates the victor.
For justice to apply to a society, it must first start with the individual. Thus Plato’s overall strategy in The Republic is to first demonstrate the idea of political justice in a city as a whole and then scale it down while applying the fundamental principles to the individual and tracing how the two are inextricable in order for pure justice to prevail. Unfortunately, at one point the individual becomes lost from this mix.
There are three main classes within a society: the producers, the auxiliaries, and the guardians. In a just society there is a finite equilibrium between these three classes, and political justice is inherently structured. To build his image of the just city Socrates first lays out components separately. Just like if all individuals are just, justice can prevail in society, so must all of the components be created justly before being brought together.
One of the most important aspects of this perfect society is education. The body and soul are intricately tied, and both must be nourished to maintain health. Education provides nourishment to the body which in turn transfers it to the soul.However, the type of education the body receives must be monitored as to not administer unhealthy education to the soul. This is specifically why Socrates not only dictates what coursework is to be taught, but also controls what influences are to be allowed in the cultural life of the city as a whole. Therefore there must be little difference between the school curriculum and the cultural life of the entire city in general. In directing this cultural life, he bans poetry, with the exception of certain hymns, and also places censors on painting and architecture. While he laments that such art should be lost, and mourns the loss of aesthetics, he believes such sacrifices are necessary for the sake of the majority, helping create and maintain a pure and just city that is not enslaved by its passions (which are brought out in artistic endeavors, hence the rationale for banning them). He will return to this point at the end.
Continuing with education, Socrates alludes to the love between a teacher and his student, which has little to do with the actual education being delivered. However, erotic love spurs towards knowledge in several ways, as is described in the Platonic ladder of love. First there is the love of the beauty of the physical body, followed by love of all beauty resembling the original, after which all physical beauty is to be loved, leading to love of beautiful studies, culminating in a supreme study or knowledge of beauty itself. And this knowledge is what creates the philosopher, and thus is pertinent to the education of a boy pursuing philosophy. However, Socrates prohibits sexual love in the city, arguing that to love beauty, intercourse is not needed. The goal is to lead the beloved to knowledge of truth and goodness – ultimately justice.
A soul’s health is determined by the desires which it strives to fulfill. A just soul is one that pursues the right desires; desires for physical pleasure are not worth fulfilling, and so a teacher of philosophy should use his love for his students not to fulfill such pleasure, but to refrain from acting upon it and instead use his love to find truth and goodness along with his beloved, guiding him.
At this point it should become clear that Plato is rather authoritarian in constructing his city, especially in subsequent chapters. Within this fictional city personal freedom is not valued since the good of the masses/state surmounts all other considerations. It is in fact reminiscent of the idea of communism, which, if handled inappropriately (so far always the case), can easily transform into tyranny. This too will be touched on in later chapters.
The class system of this city is split among three in a traditional way, and against individual preferences. Of course Socrates defends this system, arguing that it is the best because each person will be placed in the class best suited to his nature, and thus will find whatever class he is in to be most pleasing (I believe this may be where Huxley got his ideas from, and that turned out well).
People would be placed into their respective categories early, and expected to fulfill their lives within these social confines (B.F. Skinner played with this idea a bit… and might I ask why only dystopia authors experiment with Socrates’ city concept?).
Several more components are added to the city, and for a while it appears that Socrates is simply building what he believes to be an ideal society, forgetting all about the definition of justice which he first set out to prove. However, he does return to it, and when he does define justice, it is ironically rather similar to the definition Cephalus and Polemarchus came up with in the beginning which Socrates endeavored to disprove. Cephalus speculated that justice was the honoring of legal obligations, and Polemarchus stated that justice amounted to aiding a friend and hurting an enemy. Both of these ideas base themselves in the idea of rendering what is due, or appropriate, which is very close to many of Socrates’ arguments of justice as a political arrangement in which each person plays the appropriate role and everyone receives what they justly deserve.
Either way, now that the city has been outlined, Socrates proceeds to create an analogy between the three classes of the city and the three parts of the human soul, contriving to build upon it until he can define justice to the level of one man, the ultimate goal of his argument. Now that he has named the classes of the city, he must identify the parts of the soul, otherwise he cannot draw any correlations. There is the appetitive part of the soul that concerns itself with primitive desires, the spirited part that yearns for honor, and the rational part which seeks truth and knowledge. In combination these three parts breed harmony within man; the rational part rules, the spirited part enforces the rational part’s convictions, and the appetitive part obeys. Just like in society the rational few (the philosophers) rule, while the masses who are thought to be spirited enforce the ruling, while the weak few who give into their desires, are suppressed and denied. This does not necessarily mean that each part is incapable to subsisting on its own, as they can exist independently, however the ideal situation comprises all three.
In the next chapter Plato advocates the equal education of women. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that he believed in the modern equivalent of equality between the sexes, as he asserts that women are inferior to men in all ways, including intellect. While this may seem derogatory to female readers, keep in mind at what point this was written; for its time it was rather revolutionary.
Then Plato proceeds to describe family life in his idea city, focusing on the guardian class and their family dynamic. There is a large flaw in his argument that should become apparent shortly. He believes that only the guardian class should have a distinct family unit since that would ensure patriotism as the children of the ruling class would be raised with a love for their land bestowed upon them through the family. Much like the family dynamic that demands respect for the head of the household, the same ideology would be carried over into the city state, garnering followers for the ruler from among the highest class.
The auxiliaries, however, are not afforded the same, and they are not encouraged to develop family units. Yet in adolescence the auxiliaries and guardians are brought up in the same fashion (similar educations and life styles), with the highest class chosen from among the best. This is the first inconsistency in the argument. How are they raised the same if only one class has a the family unit conducive to creating chosen youths?
Secondly, this class division seems unnecessary, existing for its own sake. Should the auxiliaries, only slightly below the guardians, be allowed to maintain similar family units, it would only benefit the ruler as more loyal/worthy subjects would be bred.
The only class disqualified from family creation and education is the producing class at the bottom. It is argued that they do not contribute to political life like the guardians, or even help defend the city like the auxiliaries, thus they have no need for reproduction; their children are not needed. While it is true that children from this class will not be recruited into politics or defense, it appears it was not taken into consideration how this class would perpetuate itself for the uses it does have. Keep in mind this is basically the servile class comprised of workers, and these works have duties to perform. Once the current generation dies, if they are not allowed to procreate, there will be no one to serve the ruling classes later.
Keeping with the theme of family, the education of women and children is briefly outlined followed by a continuation of what was once the main theme, philosophy. Plato extols the philosopher for displaying the most virtue in society; through his constant endeavors towards truth, all other desires are weakened before they may weaken him through immoral behavior. Essentially the philosopher is rational to the point of needing nothing extraneous, including self glory, or other such frivolous emotions. This idea of the philosopher is at odds with the ideal Plato tries to describe. He says the philosopher’s soul is harmonious, but losing all drives seems more of a monopolized soul than one in harmony – rather than stating that the philosopher’s desires are ruled by pure reason (which appears to be what he is trying to convey), he simply negates the philosopher’s desires altogether. As it was earlier argued that all men have all three components (reason, desire, appetite), here the philosopher is ruled by only one, reason, and harmony is not achieved by an equilibrium of all three, but rather the suppression, or complete absence, of the other two. While this may seem contradictory to human nature, Plato argues that that is the only way for the philosopher to function; should desire or appetite exist, human nature would not allow the philosopher to function purely on reason.
Unfortunately, the philosopher king, once he has seen the light so to speak, must return to the cave and impart his knowledge upon others. Plato argues that at first this seems unfair. If the philosopher has reached this almost nirvana like state, returning to the cave would be highly depressing. However, in the perfect city the welfare of one group is overshadowed by the welfare of the many, and the philosopher’s return (as he would be required to spread his knowledge), would be beneficial to all. To stave off depression he can rationally accept that he is performing his civic duties, and obtain joy through imparting knowledge and thus rescuing others from the cave environment. Also, it is assumed that the philosopher started his quest for knowledge through education he received in the city/cave and thus it would be the rational method of paying back his debt to society by returning to enlighten others.
Another rational facet of the philosopher would make him actually want to return to rule, not for monetary compensation, or even honor (which pertain to drives he does not possess), but rather because he understands that the city would become more just under his rule.Through a series of arguments and examples Plato returns to the notion of justice, stating that a society is most just when ruled by one who is not concerned with power or personal gain, but rather rules due to a sense of obligation and duty.
However, Plato did not seem to consider that reason itself could be the cause of tyrannical acts, and that some rulers have been motivated by degenerate forms of rationale, and not necessarily drives for power or wealth (which simply happened to be by-products). If one were to ask Stalin, he would surely have a perfectly rational explanation for his actions, arguing that he was simply doing what he believed to be best for his people, and his motivation was only to bring his grand ideas to fruition. Reason, can at times, go wrong.
The Republic ends with a summation of all the chapters in Plato’s attempt to tie it together, and concludes that philosophy is superior to all other studies or methods of living. To prove this point one last time Plato includes the Myth of Er, which functions as an example of the philosopher’s choice making abilities. It the myth Er dies in battle, only to revive on his funeral pyre almost two weeks later and relate his experience in the afterlife to all those in his presence. Through his fantastical narrative it can be gathered that not all virtue is created equal, and there is a difference between philosophical virtue and civic virtue that can be traced through the thousand year cycle of reward and punishment in the afterlife and through reincarnation. But before we get to this, Plato, through Socrates, returns to a previous argument on the denouncement of poetry. He stated that poetry must not exist within his perfect city, although it pained him to dispose of such aesthetic value. Now he seems to backtrack and readmit the poet into his society under the assumption that poetry cannot in fact destroy the soul as he had previously thought. His main quarrel with poetry was founded in the superfluous emotions poetry exemplified that he believed would overflow onto the reader and the reader would not only corrupt his reasoning by empathizing with the poet, but experience emotions vicariously through the poetry. Well, if a corrupt soul was to deteriorate into non existence, then corrupt individuals would cease to exist. This is not the case, therefore the soul is incorruptible, and thus poetry can remain. However, poetry for the sake of poetic practice still has no place within his city; the only poetry he will allow is devotional towards deities, or those poems commemorating heroic men, which will lead us to the Myth of Er.
Er’s main point is that justice is chosen, and one is always responsible for the decisions he chooses to make. As the different doors in the afterlife opened and souls were ushered through, each decided, by themselves, which door they would enter. The consequences of the soul’s decision would be a thousand years in either paradise or the equivalent of Hell. All of this was clearly stated, and each soul made their decisions. Thus when a soul went through a door that lead to an unjust life, there would no one to blame but the soul. Further, had the soul been a philosopher’s soul, he would have known just want decision to make since no one is better suited to understanding the universe than a philosopher, while the rest of the people haphazardly choose their doors according to superficial qualifications.
The entirety of the book, concerned with justice, traces the concept through different mediums, and analyzes it from different perspectives in order to truly define it. In the end philosophy is an inherent wisdom, to which many will not ascend, nor will they ever fully understand. Justice is a worthy undertaking to be observed by those who can practice it; those who cannot will be ruled by their superiors to ensure a supremely just republic.