The Republic

The Republic Study Guide

Plato's Republic has long defied classification: it is a philosophical masterpiece; it is acute political theory; it is great literature. Although certain inconsistencies have been subsequently discovered, philosophical and otherwise, there can be no doubt that The Republic is a work of genius. It has as its central problem the nature of justice. In a word, what is justice? From this common origin, however, the book divides at a broader level. There is first of all the mundane, represented in the first books by the refutation of proverbial morality and traditional society. But the middle books belong almost exclusively to pure philosophy. In these Plato examines the figure of the philosopher, metaphysics, and epistemology, an extended investigation that culminates in the allegory of the vision, visibility, and the sun as symbol of the good, or justice. It not until the delineation of the famous "Myth of the Cave" in Book VII, however, that the two realms: material and ideal, polity and philosophy, historical State and ideal State, virtue and ethics truly come together. The image of the liberated prisoner forsaking the light, compelled whether by force or obligation?Plato would say duty?to rejoin his companions in the murky darkness of the cave, is perhaps the key to the underlying unity of The Republic. It is in the individual that the two realms meet. Plato's aim, then, was to realize social and political stability on a foundation of moral and spiritual absolutes by which every man may live.

The seed of The Republic was probably planted in the philosopher's early manhood in Athens. While still an aspiring politician, Plato was befriended by the elder Socrates and quickly became his informal pupil. In the aftermath of the Peloponnesian war, an oligarchic tyranny, called the "Thirty Tyrants," ruled Athens for eight months and attempted to enlist both Plato and Socrates. Plato never made up his mind, but Socrates was forced to openly refuse. Nonetheless, Socrates subsequently gained a reputation for anti-democratic beliefs, extremely dangerous under the radical democracy that had newly overthrown the Thirty. When, in 399, Plato witnessed the trial and execution of Socrates at the hands of the restored Athenian democracy, under charges of corrupting the youth, introducing new gods to the city, atheism, and unusual religious practices, his disillusionment was complete. Fearing for his own life, Plato left Athens to travel, abandoning his political career and a state he would no longer be able to serve.

Thus, to some extent, The Republic can be thought of as a rectification of the fate of Socrates?a just man killed by an unjust State. And, in fact, Plato's Seventh Letter, written in his mid-seventies, seems to corroborate this inference. In it, he writes that his early hopes for statesmanship had been irrevocably destroyed by Socrates' trial and death. Thereafter, he had decided to dedicate his life not to an ephemeral and hopelessly corrupt state, but, instead, to the formulation of a society based on eternal ideas of truth, goodness, and justice. Politics was an essential part of ancient Greek life. It could be considered the outward expression of the inward conclusions of the soul. And, though Plato never held office, he was politically committed. His longest work, Laws, is also devoted to his enlightened social and political views. Plato simply refused to participate in a hopeless situation and become a martyr unnecessarily.

The actual composition of The Republic occurred in Plato's middle period, denoted by the mature formulation of the Theory of Form, possibly around 370-5 BC. An exact date is not known. Most scholars believe the dialogue was written more or less without interruption by another work. At the time, as during all of Plato's adult life, the Athenian city-state was in decline. Plato, in the sanctum of the Academy, continued his inquiries and his prolific writing despite external skepticism from the Sophists who governed the state. These men, treated ironically several times in The Republic, doubted the validity of any unified theory of knowledge and the existence of absolutes. The Republic had no publication date, as is generally the case with ancient texts; therefore, unqualified verification of its authorship is impossible. However, there is little controversy over text's authenticity.