The Republic

The Republic Summary and Analysis of Book VI

"The Philosophy of Government"

Summary: Book VI

The dialogue in Book VI has the nature of the State's rulers, the guardians, as its primary subject. Truthfulness, valor, temperance, gentility, keenness of memory are some of the essential qualities of the good and just ruler‹each one an offspring of the four cardinal Socrates elucidated in Books III and IV. Just when the auditors seem to have vanished from the dialogue, only participating to offer their assent, Adeimantus interjects. He accuses Socrates' philosophers (guardians) of being monsters and rogues. Socrates is too happy to respond; he relates the parable of the true pilot and the mutineers. His conclusion is that, if philosophers are rogues, it is the fault of those who do not put them to their proper use: ruling.

Socrates then explores the nature of the guardians further, discriminating for his auditors the different types of corruption to which the philosophic nature is susceptible. Using the inimitable analogy of the seed (human soul) and its environment, Socrates argues that, in most cases, alien soil produces noxious weeds. Sophists and spurious educators are indicted in this corruption, for they propagate values outside and inferior to Virtue. Socrates' compares their morality, which derives from the masses they serve, to an the understanding and rationalization of the "tempers of a mighty strong beast."

Antagonism between the philosophic nature and the binding pressure of the multitudes ensures that many a potentially great philosopher is lost or warped. No government exists in which he may utilize fully his innate and learned gifts. Often, says Socrates, the dejected philosopher seeks refuge in solitude.

The difficult problem of how to ease the clash between philosophers and the majority, making it possible for philosophers to assume their rightful position as rulers is, logically enough, the next topic. Erasing "the State and the manners of men" to achieve a clean surface on which to sketch the new plan is Socrates' first, though seemingly impossible solution (the other is the philosophical education of kings).

Socrates then begins to elaborate on the life and education of the rulers. Here, Socrates' finally speaks plainly what he has been implying all along: that "the perfect guardian must be a philosopher." But, in the midst of their conversation, the nature of the good resurfaces. Is it pleasure or knowledge?

To best illustrate his conception of the good, Socrates offers a series of analogies. He draws on the tripartite relationship of the eye, perceivable objects, and the sun to demonstrate how the knower, the known, and that which makes knowing possible, function. He uses mathematics and geometry to show how figures only denote absolutes, but are not truly them. And, finally, he posits the dialectic as the best means by which the absolutes, that is, the truth, can be ascertained. In conclusion, Socrates names the four faculties of the soul: reason, understanding, faith, and perception.

Analysis: Book VI

The parable of the true pilot illustrates the discrepancy existing between leadership in a particular field and mastery of the art of that particular field. In the parable, the mutinous sailors do not recognize their pilot's command of his art; on the contrary, they believe that the sailor with the most charisma, strength, or desire to lead should lead, and so overthrow the true pilot. Socrates' point is that whoever is best trained in sailing, should pilot, just as the best trained in the art of ruling, should rule. But in practice (politics), sadly, this is not the case: the wrongheaded sailors pilot and politicians, not philosophers, govern.

Similarly, Socrates' analogy of the mighty beast criticizes the majority, or mass, notion of morality. What is the opinion of most men, in fact, of the world, is almost always not the opinion‹or should we say, knowledge‹of the philosophers. The masses are neither wise, nor temperate, nor courageous; as a result, their desires do not reflect the good. And thus, because the true philosophers must hold to a minority truth or renounce their nature, they are condemned to persecution by the multitudes‹the very people that need them the most.

The suggestion that a state and a tradition can be rubbed clean to make way for philosophic rule is ludicrous; it would inevitably result in chaos and disaster. The alternative, that kings become philosophers, on the other hand, appears more reasonable, since it works within the tradition and existing state itself to effect its change and improvement.

From the last part of Book VI, we see that Plato is not finished with the good, nor will he dispense with it here, nor will he ever, really. Is it pleasure or knowledge? The analogy of vision, visibility, and light, representing knower, known, and that which makes knowing possible, helps us understand the relationship between the philosopher and the good. ŒSeeing the light' is coming into knowledge of the good. But what is the good? It is that which enables; in other words, it is, symbolically, light itself. Plato instructs: just as the eye and that which the eyes perceives are not the sun, neither is the good the knower, nor is it knowledge.

The good is an ideal, while the knowledge of it is possible only in its manifestations, in Forms. The good, like the sun, both illuminates and nurtures, though its object is the soul and not the earth. Plato further clarifies the distinction between his two realms, the visible and the intelligible. This, we surely recognize by now, is the famous, doctrine of idealism, the Theory of Forms.

What is visible, Plato tells us, is only a shadow or reflection of the truth. He subdivides the two realms, visible and intelligible, into two more unequal halves. For the intelligible, this means that in one half reside the hypotheses or arguments used to approach the other half, the ideas or ideals themselves. The dialectic, Plato goes on, uses such hypotheses as a staircase on which to ascend to the highest level‹that of the good. Finally, the four faculties of the soul, it should be noted, correspond numerically to and are in balance with the four virtues.