The Republic

Reception and interpretation

Ancient Greece

The idea of writing treatises on systems of government was followed some decades later by Plato's most prominent pupil Aristotle. He wrote a treatise for which he used another Greek word "politika" in the title. The title of Aristotle's work is conventionally translated to "politics": see Politics (Aristotle).

Aristotle's treatise was not written in dialogue format: it systematises many of the concepts brought forward by Plato in his Republic, in some cases leading the author to a different conclusion as to what options are the most preferable.

It has been suggested that Isocrates parodies the Republic in his work Busiris by showing Callipolis' similarity to the Egyptian state founded by a king of that name.[14]

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, wrote his own imitation of Plato's Republic, c. 300 BC. Zeno's Republic advocates a form of anarchism in which all of the citizens are philosophers, and advocates a more radical form of sexual communism than that proposed by Plato.

Ancient Rome


The English translation of the title of Plato's dialogue is derived from Cicero's De re publica, a dialogue written some three centuries later. Cicero's dialogue imitates the style of the Platonic dialogues, and treats many of the topics touched upon in Plato's Republic. Scipio Africanus, the main character of Cicero's dialogue expresses his esteem for Plato and Socrates when they are talking about the "Res publica". "Res publica" is not an exact translation of the Greek word "politeia" that Plato used in the title of his dialogue: "politeia" is a general term indicating the various forms of government that could be used and were used in a Polis or city-state.

While in Plato's Republic Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of the city and are engaged in providing the foundations of every state they are living in — which was Athenian democracy, oligarchy or tyranny — in Cicero's De re publica all comments are more parochial about (the improvement of) the organization of the state the participants live in, which was the Roman Republic in its final stages.


In antiquity, Plato's works were largely acclaimed; still, some commentators had another view. Tacitus, not mentioning Plato or the Republic nominally in this passage (so his critique extends, to a certain degree, to Cicero's Republic and Aristotle's Politics as well, to name only a few), noted the following (Ann. IV, 33):

  Nam cunctas nationes et urbes populus aut primores aut singuli regunt: delecta ex iis (his) et consociata (constituta) rei publicae forma laudari facilius quam evenire, vel si evenit, haud diuturna esse potest.   Indeed, a nation or city is ruled by the people, or by an upper class, or by a monarch. A government system that is invented from a choice of these same components is sooner idealised than realised; and even if realised, there will be no future for it.

The point Tacitus develops in the paragraphs immediately preceding and following that sentence is that the minute analysis and description of how a real state was governed, as he does in his Annals, however boring the related facts might be, has more practical lessons about good vs. bad governance, than philosophical treatises on the ideal form of government have.


In the pivotal era of Rome's move from its ancient polytheist religion to Christianity, Augustine wrote his magnum opus The City of God: Again, the references to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and their visions of the ideal state were legion: Augustine equally described a model of the "ideal city", in his case the eternal Jerusalem, using a visionary language not unlike that of the preceding philosophers.


Hegel respected the form of Plato's theories of state and ethical life much more than he did that of his early modern predecessors, those such as Locke, Hobbes or Rousseau, since it was the fashion of these thinkers, and of that time, to use the fiction of a "state of nature" in which the individual was considered as to his or her "natural" needs, desires and freedom. For Hegel this was a contradiction since nature and the individual are contradictory, the individual and the individual freedoms that define individuality as such, are latecomers on the stage of history. Therefore, these philosophers unwittingly projected man as an individual, i.e., abstracted from modern society, onto a state of nature. Plato on the other hand had managed to grasp the real ideas of his time:

Plato is not the man to dabble in abstract theories and principles; his truth-loving mind has recognized and represented the truth of the world in which he lived, the truth of the one spirit that lived in him as in Greece itself. No man can overleap his time, the spirit of his time is his spirit also; but the point at issue is, to recognize that spirit by its content[15]

For Hegel, Plato's Republic is not an abstract theory or ideal which is beyond, or too good for the real nature of man, but is not ideal enough, it is not good enough for the ideals which were already inherent or nascent in the reality of his time; a time when Greece was about to enter decline. One such nascent idea was about to crush the Greek way of life. The real idea of individual freedom, Hegel avers, was what destroyed the ancient Greek way of life, and therefore Modern freedoms — or, Christian freedoms, in Hegel's view — such as the free choice of the class to which one belongs, or of what property to possess or which career to follow, were excluded from Plato's Republic:

Plato recognized and caught up the true spirit of his times, and brought it forward in a more definite way, in that he desired to make this new principle an impossibility in his Republic.[16]

Greece being at a crossroads, Plato's new "constitution", defined in The Republic, was an attempt to preserve Greece or, in modern terms, it was a reactionary reply to the new freedoms of private property etc., that were only given legal form through Rome. Accordingly, in ethical life, it was an attempt to introduce a religion that elevated all individuals, metaphorically or not, to be the possessors of an immortal soul.

20th century


In his 1934 Plato und die Dichter (Plato and the Poets), as well as several other works, Hans-Georg Gadamer describes the utopic city of the Republic as a heuristic utopia that should not be pursued or even be used as an orientation-point for political development. Rather, its purpose is said to be to show how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another — often with highly problematic results — if one would opt for certain principles and carry them through rigorously. This interpretation argues that large passages in Plato's writing are ironic, a line of thought initially pursued by Kierkegaard.


The city portrayed in the Republic struck some critics as harsh, rigid, and unfree; indeed, as totalitarian. Karl Popper gave a voice to that view in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper singled out Plato's state as a dystopia; Popper thought Plato's envisioned state totalitarian as it advocated a government composed only of a distinct hereditary ruling class, with the working class — who Popper argues Plato regards as "human cattle" — given no role in decision making. He argues that Plato has no interest in what are commonly regarded as the problems of justice — the resolving of disputes between individuals — because Plato has redefined justice as "keeping one's place".[17]


Eric Voegelin in Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge, 1957), gave meaning to the concept of ‘Just City in Speech’ (Books II-V). For instance, there is evidence in the dialogue that Socrates himself would not be a member of his 'ideal' state. His life was almost solely dedicated to the private pursuit of knowledge. More practically, Socrates suggests that members of the lower classes could rise to the higher ruling class, and vice versa, if they had ‘gold’ in their veins — a crude version of the concept of social mobility. The exercise of power is built on the ‘Noble Lie’ that all men are brothers, born of the earth, yet there is a clear hierarchy and class divisions. There is a tri-partite explanation of human psychology that is extrapolated to the city, the relation among peoples. There is no family among the guardians, another crude version of Max Weber's concept of bureaucracy as the state non-private concern. Together with Leo Strauss, Voegelin considered Popper's interpretation to be a gross misunderstanding not only of the dialogue itself, but of the very nature and character of Plato's entire philosophic enterprise.

Strauss and Bloom

Some of Plato’s proposals have led theorists like Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom to ask readers to consider the possibility that Socrates was creating not a blueprint for a real city, but a learning exercise for the young men in the dialogue. There are many points in the construction of the "Just-City-in-Speech" that seem contradictory, which raise the possibility Socrates is employing irony to make the men in the dialogue question for themselves the ultimate value of the proposals. In turn, Plato has immortalized this ‘learning exercise’ in the Republic.

One of many examples is that Socrates calls the marriages of the ruling class 'sacred'; however, they last only one night and are the result of manipulating and drugging couples into predetermined intercourse with the aim of eugenically breeding guardian-warriors. Strauss and Bloom's interpretations, however, involve more than just pointing out inconsistencies; by calling attention to these issues they ask readers to think more deeply about whether Plato is being ironic or genuine, for neither Strauss nor Bloom present an unequivocal opinion, preferring to raise philosophic doubt over interpretive fact.

Leo Strauss's approach developed out of a belief that Plato wrote esoterically. The basic acceptance of the exoteric-esoteric distinction revolves around whether Plato really wanted to see the "Just-City-in-Speech" of Books V-VI come to pass, or whether it is just an allegory. Strauss never regarded this as the crucial issue of the dialogue. He argued against Karl Popper's literal view, citing Cicero's opinion that the Republic's true nature was to bring to light the nature of political things.[18] In fact, Strauss undermines the justice found in the "Just-City-in-Speech" by implying the city is not natural, it is a man-made conceit that abstracts away from the erotic needs of the body. The city founded in the Republic "is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros."[19]

An argument that has been used against ascribing ironic intent to Plato is that Plato's Academy produced a number of tyrants, men who seized political power and abandoned philosophy for ruling a city. Despite being well-versed in Greek and having direct contact with Plato himself, some of Plato's former students like Clearchus, tyrant of Heraclea; Chairon, tyrant of Pellene; Eurostatos and Choriskos, tyrants of Skepsis; Hermias of Atarneus and Assos; and Calippus, tyrant of Syracuse ruled people and did not impose anything like a philosopher-kingship. However, it can be argued whether these men became "tyrants" through studying in the Academy. Plato's school had an elite student body, part of which would by birth, and family expectation, end up in the seats of power. Additionally, it is important to remember that it is by no means obvious that these men were tyrants in the modern, totalitarian sense of the concept. Finally, since very little is actually known about what was taught at Plato's Academy, there is no small controversy over whether it was in fact even in the business of teaching politics at all.[20]

Views on the city–soul analogy

Many critics, both ancient and modern (like Julia Annas), have suggested that the dialogue's political discussion actually serves as an analogy for the individual soul, in which there are also many different "members" that can either conflict or else be integrated and orchestrated under a just and productive "government." Among other things, this analogical reading would solve the problem of certain implausible statements Plato makes concerning an ideal political republic. In a definitive treatment of the subject, Blössner (2007)[21] presents and argues for the case that the Republic is best understood as an analysis of the workings and moral improvement of the individual soul with remarkable thoroughness and clarity. This view, of course, does not preclude a legitimate reading of the Republic as a political treatise (the work could operate at both levels). It merely implies that it deserves more attention as a work on psychology and moral philosophy than it has sometimes received.


All abovementioned views have in common that they view the Republic as a theoretical work, not as a set of guidelines for good governance. Nonetheless, Bertrand Russell argues that at least in intent, and all in all not so far from what was possible in ancient Greek city-states, the form of government portrayed in the Republic was meant as a practical one by Plato.[22]

21st century

One of Plato’s recurring techniques in the Republic is to refine the concept of justice with reference to various examples of greater or lesser injustice. However, in The Concept of Injustice,[23] Eric Heinze challenges the assumption that ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ form a mutually exclusive pair. Heinze argues that such an assumption traces not from strict deductive logic, but from the arbitrary etymology of the word ‘injustice’. Heinze critiques what he calls ‘classical’ Western justice theory for having perpetuated that logical error, which first appears in Plato’s Republic, but manifests throughout traditional political philosophy, in thinkers otherwise as different as Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx.

In fiction, the 2015 novel The Just City by Jo Walton explored the consequences of establishing a city-state based on the Republic in practice.

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