The Republic

Summary and Analysis of Book X

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"The Recompense of Life"

Summary: Book X

The final book of The Republic begins with Socrates return to an earlier theme, that of imitative poetry. He reiterates that while he is still content with having banished poetry from their State, he wishes to explain his reasons more thoroughly. Taking a bed as his example, Socrates relates how in the world there are three levels at which phenomena occur. First and original is the level of God, who creates the bed as an idea; second is the carpenter who imitates God's idea in making a particular bed; and last is the poet or painter, whose bed imitates the imitator's.

Homer is offered as an unfortunate case. The great poet, Socrates laments, would have helped his country more truly had he taken a political role. An artist imitates that which he does not understand; the poet sings of the cobbler, but does he know the trade? Not at all. Imitation, says Socrates, is a game or sport; it is play.

Socrates warms his auditors of the common imbalance of the soul toward the affective, "the rebellious principle," ­toward grief and lamentation‹of which opportunistic poetry takes advantage. Thus it uselessly commemorates human irrationality and cowardice, and worse, for the sake of a popular audience. The audience is seduced, as it were, into feeling undesirable emotions.

The only poetry that Socrates will allow in the State is "hymns to the gods and praises to famous men." Poetry, and especially musical verse, on the other hand, is pleasurable and serves neither truth nor the State‹in fact, just the opposite. And so, after admitting his own love for poetry and Homer in particular, Socrates must leave it out.

But Socrates lifts his spirits and the spirits of his auditors by illustrating the rewards of the virtuous man. He begins, to Glaucon's incredulity, to state that the human soul is immortal. Like the healthy body, the human soul, fortified by the good, lives on eternally. The soul, Socrates continues, cannot be purely known otherwise than through the faculty of reason. And its final and greatest recompense is attained in the afterlife, when the gods‹having observed the good soul's pursuit of god-like virtues‹honor it accordingly. Whereas the unjust man suffers in life, more often in the long run than the short, and is viciously scorned by the gods thereafter.

The book closes with Socrates' long narration of the tale of Er, an ancient hero who, after being slain in battle, entered the afterlife only to return again. The tale defies facile summary except to say that every man and woman arriving in the afterlife is held accountable and judged for his or her actions. A tyrant is condemned to hell for a thousand years. The primarily righteous, however, ascend to heaven where they are made to choose their next mode of life. Some elect to return as animals, others as a famous athlete or ruler; Odysseus, for example, chooses the life of a humble man. But the choice is their own: based on the wisdom they carry with them. Finally the souls drink from the river of Forgetfulness, become oblivious, and return to earth in their new forms. Throughout the story Socrates is careful to warn Glaucon of all the pitfalls and mistakes and, most importantly, of how the account recapitulates everything they have heretofore determined in their dialogue.

Analysis: Book X

The argument presented against poetic imitation is, however arduously maintained, not entirely convincing. Plato believes poetic knowledge to be of appearances only because, were it otherwise, the poet would dedicate himself to "realities" not "imitations," or images. The poet knows no trade and produce nothing of real, that is, necessary value. In fact, Plato's portrait of the artist makes him seem superfluous.

Plato's second objection is that the artist knowingly manipulates the passions of his audience. In a purely rational State, there is no room for the stirring up of "evil constitutions," nor the retelling of misfortunes or misadventures in the past. What lies behind Plato's dislike of maudlin dramas or even great tragedy is his conviction that the audience will identify with and in turn imitate whatever it sees.

The immortality of the soul, for Plato, does not depend on the justice and cannot be destroyed even as the body is destroyed. Its fate, on the other hand, is contingent upon its relationship with the good; it feeds and nourishes itself on the wisdom. The souls of the wicked are a more complicated issue, for, insofar as they are immortal, evil cannot destroy them. However, Plato warns, there are various manifest parts to the soul, and evil-doing damages these. And unjust men also injure their own bodies and the bodies of others. In any case the afterlife is what is most important; there the good soul enjoys the benefits it may or may not have experienced in life.

The moral of the tale of Er, if we may drain it of its color, is that of the eternal return, or recurrence. After death the soul is ultimately judged. This judgment determines the owner of the soul's order of choice in lots for the next life. Then, whatever wisdom he has accumulated previously helps him make his choice when his lot comes up. Both moments are essential because they represent choices between good and evil. One is an ongoing choice, alive in mortal life, and the other is the ultimate choice‹the sum of what the soul has learned in life. Man is responsible for his own behavior, says Plato. And the final twist is that, it seems, the wise man does not really forget, since if he is truly wise he will choose yet another wise existence.