The Republic

The Republic Summary

The Republic itself is nothing at the start of Plato's most famous and influential book. It does not exist. Not only does it not exist in actuality, but it does not exist in theory either. It must be built. It's architect will be Socrates, the fictional persona Plato creates for himself. In the first episode Socrates encounters some acquaintances during the festival of Bendis. His reputation for good conversation already well-established, Socrates is approached by some dilettante philosopher acquaintances and drawn into a dialogue. The discussion quickly moves to justice thanks to Socrates. The other philosophers, including Thrasymachus, Polermarchus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus enthusiastically consent to such a worthy topic. However, it is unlikely at this point that any of these philosophers‹save Socrates, of course‹anticipates the ambition and enormity of their undertaking.

In Book I, Socrates entertains two distinct definitions of justice. The first is provided by Polermarchus, who suggests that justice is "doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies." The definition, which is a version of conventionally morality, is considered. Very soon though, its faults are clearly apparent. It is far to relative to serve as a formulation of the justice. Moreover, its individual terms are vulnerable; that is to say, how does one know who is a friend and who an enemy? And are not friends as much as enemies capable of evil? And when a friend acts wickedly, should he not be punished? And next, what does it mean that an action is good or bad? The perils of giving credence to false appearances is introduced early on as a major theme. It will be dealt with at length in the succeeding books. Thus surely an idea as noble as justice will not stand on such precarious ground. Socrates is dissatisfied. A second definition, offered by Thrasymachus, endorses tyranny. "Obedience to the interest of the stronger," is likewise mined for its value, shown to be deficient, and discarded. Tyranny, Socrates demonstrates employing several analogies, inevitably results in the fragmentation of the soul. Benevolent rule, on the other hand, ensures a harmonious life for both man and State. Justice is its means and good is its end. That "justice is the excellence of the soul" is Socrates' main conclusion. But there are too many presumptions. Although his auditors have troubled refuting his claims, Socrates knows he has been too vague and that should they truly wish to investigate the question of justice, he will have to be more specific. Book I ends with yet another question. Is the just life more pleasurable, more rewarding than the unjust? Rather all at once the philosophers have inundated themselves. But the first book has succeeded in one major way. It has established the territory of the over-arching argument of the entire work;

The philosophers continue the debate in Book II by introducing a new definition that belongs more to political philosophy than pure philosophy: that justice is a legally enforced compromise devised for the mutual protection of citizens of a state. In other words, justice is a fabrication of the State that prevents citizens from harming one another. Socrates is certainly up to the challenge. He dislikes the idea that justice does not exists naturally, but that it must be externally and superficially imposed to discourage unjust behavior. Adeimantus' mentioning of the State seems fortuitous, but it is as if Socrates has been waiting for it all along. Uncertain whether they can arrive at an acceptable definition of justice any other way, Socrates proposes they construct a State of which they approve, and see if they might not find justice lurking in it somewhere. This State arises, Socrates says, "out of the needs of mankind." And the immense project of building a State from its very foundation has officially commenced. Basic necessities are addressed first, then the primitive division of labor, followed by the rudiments of education. Within the ideal State, Socrates maintains, there will be no need for "bad fictions," or manipulative poetics in general, since education must be perfectly moral.

The arts in education are primarily dealt with in Book III. Socrates concludes his attack on the "libelous poetry" that portrays his beloved virtues in so many negative lights. It is not of use to the State. Or if it is to be of use, it must be stringently didactic and partake of none of the indulgence and rhapsody common to their tradition and to contemporary poets as well. Even Homer is indicted. Instead the citizens of the state, at this early stage they are generically named guardians, are to be nourished only on literature - broadly termed 'music' by Socrates - clearly illustrating courage, wisdom, temperance, and virtue (just behavior). The second part of education, gymnasium, consists mostly of the physical training of the citizens. At this point Socrates' State needs rulers. Who better to rule than the best and most patriotic citizens produced by the rigorous education apparatus. These very select few are now more strictly called the guardians, while non-guardians remain citizens. The guardians will be the rulers. The book closes with the Phoenician myth, which Socrates feels would serve as effective mythical explanation for their State. Through the myth citizens are told they are made of a certain mix of metals, gold and silver, iron and brass, etc. They are born like this and are to take the requisite social station because of it. However, should a citizen of gold or silver be born to parents of an inferior metal, he will rise socially as is just; and the rule will also function in the reverse situation. The myth provides the State with an accessible, allegorical illustration of its stable, hierarchical social organization.

In Book IV the happiness of the guardians, so strenuously trained, is questioned. Socrates takes the objections of his auditors in due stride, reminding them of their original premise: that the State is to be for the good of the many and not the few. Their State has grown larger in the meantime, and is beginning to divide its labors. Defense and security against neighbors and foreign invasion enter the debate. But surely, Socrates says, the education, military and otherwise, that the citizens have garnered, coupled with their love for the State and their solidarity, will repel or outwit all challenges. Believing that what they have created thus far is a perfect State, the philosopher once again seek out justice. Socrates suggests they proceed by a process of elimination among the four virtues. He defines courage, temperance, and wisdom, but must digress before attaining justice. The digression yields the three principles of the soul: reason, passion, and appetite. When these exist in harmony, Socrates concludes, there is justice. It is a provisional definition.

The philosophers agreement at the end of Book IV to discuss the various corrupt forms of government is, however, interrupted by an accusation of laziness. Thrasymachus voices his dissatisfaction with Socrates who, he says, has purposely avoided speaking of the more practical concerns of the State. The objection blossoms into the section on matrimony. Encompassing matrimony, family, and community, Socrates elucidates his very scientific, very futuristic plan for population control and the right breeding of the human animal. The strong reproduce more often than the weak. Likewise weak offspring are disposed of or hidden away someplace unnamed. Socrates has bucked two of what he calls three "waves." The third and greatest is the question of whether their possibility is realizable in any way. Socrates' response is mostly negative. However, there is one method by which the States they see around them might become ideal States. That is, if philosophers become kings or, more likely, if kings take up the study of philosophy. Hence the famous term philosopher-kings. But this in turn begs the query: what is the philosopher? This leads Socrates into another complicated idea, an inchoate version of the Theory of Forms. Manifestations, appearances, likenesses, opinions‹none of them are Reality; they are merely shadows. Only the Forms, the ideals that lie behind are truth. And the philosopher seeks above all else knowledge of these Forms.

Yet another accusation from the gallery directs Socrates' inquiry in the beginning of Book VI. Adeimantus believes the guardians they have created are monsters. On the contrary, Socrates defends, their nobility and worth are beyond question, drawing on the parable of the pilot and his crew as an illustration. The parable opposes the wants of the majority with the authority of the truly fit leader. The multitudes, Socrates explains, do not know what is best for them. They are to be ruled by one especially suited and trained to this end, and for the good of all. Socrates is obliged then to develop the relationship between the guardians and philosophy. Guardians, he says, cease to be guardians when they abandon the truth, be minority or otherwise. The final section of Book VI includes a series of wonderfully vivid and intelligible figures or metaphors that help clarify somewhat the Theory of Forms and the good. Visibility, vision, and light are analogous to knowledge, the knower, and that which makes knowing possible, the good. The good is symbolized by sunlight, the vital means by which the sun not only sheds light on the world but nourishes that world. Philosophy is a love of the light, an attempt to perceive and understand it in all its metaphorical manifestations. Everything else belongs to the world of the manifold, of shadows. Finally the dialectic is the only way to ascend, as upon a staircase of ideas, to the luminous good.

Book VII is dominated by the Allegory of the Cave. One of the most enduring images perhaps in the history of western philosophy, the dim cave plays host to a group of prisoners, chained in such a way that they cannot move their heads, stare at a wall all day. Thanks to a small fire, the prisoners see the shadows of their captors projected on the wall. Having always been in the cave, they believe the shadows are true; likewise, the echoed voices they hear, they also believe to be true. Then one day a certain prisoner is released. The secrets of the cave are disclosed to him, and he is lead up into the sunlight, which blinds his unaccustomed eyes. The third part of the allegory has the Œenlightened' prisoner, who has looked upon, contemplated, and adjusted to the true light of the sun, must return to the cave. There he finds his new eyes ill-suited for cave life and is cruelly mocked by the other prisoners. A summary of the life course of the guardians, the allegory moralizes dutiful rule for the common good. The guardians must give up the beauty and peace of the light to help their fellow men, the majority of whom dwell in abject darkness. But who would make such a sacrifice? Given their education‹which is now expanded even further‹Socrates is confidant the guardians would. After all they spend the first fifty years of their life training for the opportunity and, as they would considered it, their honor.

Socrates asks permission to backtrack a little at the opening of Book VIII in order to analyze the forms of corrupt governments. This way they can also look at the individuals inhabiting them, thus cutting away the grist so that only the meat, the just man, may remain. There are four principle defective forms: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Aristocracy's (the republic) degeneration into timocracy occurs as a kind of hypothetical fluke, an error in population control. The timocracy is a government based primarily on honor not justice, and the timocratic man is torn between his philosophical ancestors and new, ingratiating contemporaries who flatter his vanity. Oligarchy arises when wealth becomes the standard. The State separates into two distinct and distant classes‹rich and poor. And the timocrat embodies the old, honorable ways in competition with avarice. After a revolution in which the rulers are overthrown by the discontented poor, democracy, the most liberal and various State appears. The democratic representative is ruled by appetites that hold sway well above reason or honor. The final dissolution into the worst and most wicked form of government, tyranny, is the result of democracy's supposed virtue: freedom. But is in excess and, after another revolution, a new ruler, the tyrant ascends. He has no unlimited freedom and thus no morals. He feels off the State, taxes his people, protects himself with mercenaries, and destroys any threat to this power. The book's most miserable character, the tyrant is antithetical to the guardian; he is injustice incarnate.

Book IX sees Socrates deal with the figure of the tyrant in more depth. This is a necessary digression, since by evaluating the life of the tyrant, his pleasures and pains, they may have a better idea of what constitutes the unjust life. Eventually they will use what they learn from the tyrant to compare his life with the philosopher's. The tyrant begins as the champion of the people, promising to release them from debt. By the end of his reign, however, he has taxed them into poverty and enslaved them. Then, in an unexpected turn, the tyrant, for a while master of all men himself becomes a slave to all men. He is governed by insatiable appetites, is threatened on all sides and at every moment by betrayal and assassination, and can never leave his land for fear of being deposed. The portrait is rather dismal; what would seem to be absolute freedom is in reality absolute slavery. Book IX concludes with the re-introduction of the question: does the unjust man who is perceived as just in public live better or worse than the just man perceived as unjust? A discussion of the nature of pleasure ensues and the base pleasures are distinguished from the noble and, in fact, more enjoyable. Ultimately, Socrates answers, in the long run, injustice enjoys much less, if at all, and must inevitably reveal itself and be shunned or cast out. The finale, and really the end of the State as such, is Socrates assertion that whether or not the ideal State becomes a reality, the philosopher must always live as though it were real inside him.

The final book of The Republic, "The Recompense of Life," telescopes into two main points. First is the issue of imitative poetry. Here Socrates offers his conclusive assessment of the poetic arts. Homer, he apologizes, must, except for those parts portraying nobility and right behavior in famous men and gods, be left out of the State. He may even have to be translated from verse to prose, in order that the musicality of the language not seduce any citizens. Second comes the true recompense of life, which actually occurs in the afterlife. Although the just man reaps great rewards in mortal life, it is in his immortality, or the immortality of his soul, where he is truly paid his due. The gods receive the just man, who has aspired all along to emulate them, as a quasi-equal. And enfin, The Republic closes with Socrates' colorful narration of the tale of Er the hero. It is a long description of an afterlife, in which all those virtues that Socrates has worked so diligently to expose and defend are given their proper place. Souls are shown in eternal recurrence, moving up and down from the heavens to earth and back again (with the wicked spending thousand year stints in hell).