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AudioLearn’s Philosophy Classics: Plato’s Republic
AudioLearn’s Philosophy Classics presents Plato’s Republic. Welcome to our discussion of this classical work.
Plato was one of the world’s first political scientists. His most famous work, The Republic, was written twenty-four and a half centuries ago – 360 years before the birth of Christ. Yet many of the debates he provoked, issues he raised, and insights he provided are still with us today.
In this first section of our discussion of the Republic, we’ll provide an overview of Plato’s life and times. You may have heard the expression, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Well, that came from Plato, and in the second section we’ll examine the known details of his life. To appreciate the many messages in The Republic, you’ll need to know something about the political and social situation of Athens in Plato’s day. That’s what we’ll present in Section Three. Section Four will give you with a summary of The Republic. Section Five will feature a more detailed examination of The Republic, with a look at each of the ten books that comprise the text. In Section Six we’ll look at some of the ways The Republic remains relevant today despite the passage of many centuries.
The translation of The Republic from the Greek we’ll be using as a reference is the one by the English educator and Greek scholar Benjamin Jowett. There are many translations, some of them more recent, but for contractual and copyright reasons, and because of its excellent quality, we’ll use Jowett’s version. Scholars still use and respect it even though it was done in 1892. Jowett’s translation is available on line.
The main thrust of The Republic is the search for Justice. In the long discussions about how to achieve justice many other themes emerge. You’ll recognize many of them as live issues today. Should we seek justice for the state, like the system that prevails under the Civil Code, or justice for the individual as occurs under English system of common law? How much state intervention is necessary or desirable in the good society? What must a person do to become just? What kind of leader should the state have? What is the Good? Is the just society a worthwhile goal? These are some of the questions that tantalized society in Plato’s time and tantalize it today.
Plato knew that simply writing down his ideas would only result in controversy, and so he presents them in the form of long conversations among a group of friends. He called them dialogs rather than debates. The teacher in each of the dialogs is Socrates, the man who had been Plato’s mentor during his youth and who was arguably the best teacher of the era. Others in the group challenge the ideas Socrates puts forward and raise doubts about their correctness. The style Plato adopted was the one used in presenting a script for a play, with the speaker’s name written at the start of his speech. With other characters challenging the points Socrates was making, Plato could defend his arguments while recognizing that other ways looking at an issue.
There is some disagreement over how many of the ideas put forward by the Socrates of the dialogs were actually articulated by Socrates the man. Many scholars believe that in some cases, especially in the later dialogs, Plato used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own thoughts.
Plato was one of the most prolific writers of his time. He is definitely credited with at least twenty-three dialogs, and there is scholarly disagreement about the authorship of several others. The Republic is one of the longest dialogs. The Apology is about the death of Socrates in 399 B.C. Menexus, Gorgias, and Protagoras are dialogs in which Socrates is invited to converse with a well-known wise man who is visiting Athens. Other dialogs, such as Euthyphro and Crito, involve just two characters who are not said to be overheard by anyone else.
Welcome to Section Two of our discussion of Plato’s Republic. In this section we will describe Plato’s life and works.
Much is speculated and little is confirmed about Plato’s life. Most scholars think he was born in or around the year 428 Before Christ. Historical rumor has it that he was descended from a former king of Athens. It’s certain that his family was wealthy and probably belonged to the ruling oligarchy. He had two brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a sister, Potone.
Diogenes Laertius, a biographer of philosophers from the third century Before Christ, says Plato’s given name was Aristocles. According to his account, Aristocles’ wrestling coach nicknamed him “Platon,” meaning “broad,” because of his robust figure, and the name stuck. Laertius adds that he was a good wrestler.
Plato founded his famous school, the Academy, when he was about forty years old. The Academy was likely the first institution of its kind, and it stands as the model for the Western university. The campus on which the Academy was located had once been the property of the citizen Academus. It opened its doors in 385 B.C. and continued operating for more than nine centuries. Finally in 529 A.D. Justinian the First of Byzantium saw it as a threat to Christianity and ordered it closed.
During Plato’s lifetime the Academy received students from the entire Mediterranean region. Its curriculum included metaphysics, which is the study of what is real; epistemology, which inquires into knowledge, belief, and thought; and ethics; politics; and the natural and mathematical sciences.
In his dialogs, Plato kept himself in the background. His spokesman is Socrates. Tradition suggests that the dialogs form a pseudo-history of the teachings of Socrates, but contradictions and chronological discrepancies in the works put this view in some doubt. Indeed, it’s not certain how many of the dialogs took place at all.
Plato liked to use analogies or similes in his dialogs, and these could be as powerful as the arguments. One of the most famous is his comparison of the philosopher to the medical doctor. He says the philosopher cures the mind of its worst affliction, which is ignorance, while the doctor cures the body of illness. Apparently Plato believed in an afterlife because he has Socrates comparing the body to a prison for the soul. Again, he said the soul is like a charioteer trying to manage a pair of horses overcome with lust as they pass a mare. The best-known analogy of all is the allegory of the Cave. We’ll examine that one in some depth during our detailed discussion of The Republic.
Even though Plato’s teacher Socrates left no writings, his reputation as one of the greatest teachers of all time remains intact today. But his teachings offended some members of the Athenian oligarchy and eventually he was forced to stand trial on trumped-up charges. Found guilty, he was condemned to death in 399 B.C. He accepted the verdict without bitterness, saying a death sentence wouldn’t rob a seventy-year-old man of very many years of life. The trial of Socrates was the central event of the greatest Platonic dialogs. The Apology, which is the dialog that describes Socrates’ defense at his trial, is the most widely read of Plato’s works.
It seems that Plato was a lifelong bachelor. No mention of a wife is made in the biographies. In the Symposium dialog, he tells a group of friends that he learned everything he knows about love from the sorceress Diotima. He says she taught him that men who are sexually attracted to women are misguided, because they are searching for immortality through their children. Ideas, she told him, are more likely to make a man famous than are his progeny. In Plato’s time his sexual orientation does not appear to have been an issue. Indeed, two of the dialogs, Phaedrus and The Symposium, deal with the theme of man-boy love.
Plato continued his work at The Academy until his death in 347 B.C., when he was about eighty years old. He interrupted his work at the Academy twice to travel to Sicily, where he was one of the world’s first political consultants. One of the greatest tributes to Plato’s teachings and their continuing influence in our time was given by Alfred North Whitehead, an English philosopher and mathematician. He said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Over the course of the many dialogs, the personage of Socrates, through the pen of Plato, provided views on politics, art, religion, science, justice, medicine, virtue and vice, crime and punishment, pleasure and pain, and many other issues that still hold our attention in the twenty-first century.
The science of mathematics, dialectics, the principles of definition, the law of contradiction, the fallacy of circular arguments, the distinction between means and ends, and other observations and assertions are all products of pioneering adventures in thought by this great author.
The works of Plato disappeared from Western culture for many centuries. Fortunately, they had been preserved on the other side of the Mediterranean and had even been translated into Arabic. They were brought back from Constantinople in the fourteenth century by George Gemistos Plethon. For a long time medieval scholars only knew of Plato third-hand – through translations into Latin from the translations into Arabic by Persian and Arab scholars.
Welcome to Section Three of our discussion of Plato’s Republic. Since Plato’s writings were partly a response to the political and social issues of his time, it’s useful look at the political and social environment in which Plato lived and worked. That’s what we’ll do in this section.
One of the most important things to be aware of is that Attica, as ancient Greece is often called, was not a unified state in Plato’s time. It consisted of dozens of small city-states. Aristotle, one of Plato’s students at the Academy, collected the constitutions of one hundred and fifty-eight of these states for an analysis of different types of government in his work, The Politics. That’s why the words “state” and “city” are interchangeable in Plato’s writings. The states he knew consisted of a city and its surrounding area.
Athens was the wealthiest city-state in the region. Like Britain in the nineteenth century, its prosperity was based on the fact that many Athenian families had made their fortunes from trade. Like nineteenth century Britain, Athens developed a powerful navy to defend its shipping lanes and its merchant fleet.
The population of Athens at the time Plato lived is thought to have been between two hundred and fifty thousand and three hundred thousand. After one eliminates all of the women, children, slaves, and lesser tradesmen from the count, there were about thirty thousand citizens with a right to vote.
During a century or more before Plato was born, in or around the year 428 Before Christ, Athens was a functioning democracy, at least for the thirty thousand voting citizens. City counselors were selected by lottery with a rotating presidency, the justice system was trial by jury, and every citizen had a right to petition the council on issues that concerned them.
But the Athens of Plato’s time was in a state of flux. By the year 400 B.C it had just lost the Peloponnesian War against Sparta, a war that had sapped its resources and men for 28 years. After the war democracy gave way to oligarchy, the rule of a relatively small number of wealthy families.
This was the political environment that prevailed when The Republic appeared.
As well, it would seem that democratic values were giving way to decadence. With growing prosperity the sons of wealthy families became more materialistic and more decadent. These new attitudes were reinforced by the teaching of the Sophists.
In the dialogs Plato often has Socrates speaking out against the Sophists and their teachings. He debates with them, and through debate their views are presented as well. The sophists were materialists who taught a variety of materialistic values and even moral relativity and selfishness. Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street trader who famously said, “Greed is good,” a few months before being sent to prison on charges of insider trading in the 1980s, would have been a Sophist. In The Republic the Sophist Thrasymachus argues that immorality is a virtue because it enables us to advance in the competition of life. In the Gorgias, Callicles claims that conventional morality is unjust because it deprives the strong of their natural right to exploit the weak.
Another effect of prosperity in Athens was its rise as a cultural center and a magnet for artists. The arts were still flourishing in Plato’s time, but the previous century had been the golden age of Greek culture. That was the epoch when some of the greatest classical artists and playwrights lived.
Relationships between men and boys are known to have been widely accepted and condoned in ancient Greece. Some city-states prohibited it but many others did not. A large component of these relationships involved mentoring the youths, and many of the friendships were not at all sexual. In Plato’s dialogs Socrates speaks against sexual intercourse with the boys one loved. He glorifies the self-disciplined lover who abstains from it. That’s where our modern concept of “Platonic love” comes from – a non-sexual affectionate relationship involving two people of either sex. Plato’s ideal of love was a chaste but passionate relationship where sexual passion is redirected into the intellectual and emotional spheres.
Plato’s dialogs deal frankly with man-boy relationships. It appears that not only were homosexual practices widely accepted, homophobia was non-existent. It’s true that the charges leveled against Socrates included failing to recognize the gods of the state, of inventing new deities, but also of corrupting the youth of Athens. However, even there it’s not clear whether the oligarchy was more concerned about pederasty or the radical political ideas he was promoting.
Welcome to Section Four of our discussion of The Republic of Plato. In this section we’ll provide an overview of the work to help prepare you for the book-by-book discussion in Section Five.
Plato’s Republic is the greatest of all his dialogs. Its main purpose is to define justice so as to show that it is a worthwhile goal in and of itself. He approaches this by relating it to human psychology rather than to perceived behavior.
There are many digressions along the way, and even the digressions form a fascinating body of knowledge. The story about the sailors who all wanted to be captain of the ship, the myth of Er, and the famous analogies of the Sun, the Line, and the Cave are all woven into the main argument about justice.
Plato was probably the first idealist. Surprisingly, he did not rate democracy as the top of the political scale. That’s because in a democracy we find many self-centered citizens who vote for what’s good for them while ignoring the good of the State. Plato’s ideal city is a monarchy in which the state counts for more than the individual. It is headed by a philosopher king who knows what is best for the city.
Plato’s strategy in The Republic is first to explain the primary notion of societal or political justice, then to develop a parallel concept of individual justice. Book One serves as a general introduction. In Books Two, Three and Four, Plato identifies political justice as harmony in a structured political body.
Plato says an ideal society consists of three classes of people. The first class is the Producers – craftsmen, farmers, artisans, lawyers, and merchants – those who produce goods and services. The second class consists of the auxiliaries or Warriors, the soldiers or policemen whose job is to defend the state. The third class consists of the guardians, who are the Rulers.
A society is just when these three classes operate in harmony. Each group must perform only its own function. Rulers must rule, auxiliaries must uphold the rulers’ convictions; and producers must exercise the skills nature has given them. The principle of specialization calls for each person to fulfill his role and not interfere with the others.
At the end of Book Four, Plato develops his view that individual justice mirrors the political justice of the state. He says the soul of every individual has a three part structure similar to the three classes of a society. The rational part of the soul seeks truth and is responsible for our philosophical inclinations. There is a spirited part of the soul, which strives for honor and is responsible for our feelings of anger and indignation. The appetitive part of the soul lusts after material things and money. If you’re familiar with the works of Sigmund Freud, the nineteenth century founder of modern psychology, you’ll recognize these tendencies in his description of the id, the ego, and the superego.
The just individual can be defined alongside the just society because the three parts of his soul have the same relationships of power and influence in regard to one another. In a just individual, the rational part of the soul rules. The spirited part of the soul supports this rule, and the appetitive part submits and follows wherever reason leads. In a just person the soul aims at fulfilling the desires of the rational part in the same way that in the just society the community aims at fulfilling the rulers’ will.
Plato tells us that the parallels between the just society and the just individual run deep. Each of the three classes of society is dominated by one of the three parts of the soul. Producers are dominated by their appetites – the urge for money, luxury, and pleasure. Warriors are dominated by their spirits, which give them courage. Rulers are dominated by their rational faculties, and so they strive for wisdom.
Books Five through Seven focus on the rulers acting as “philosopher kings.” Plato explains who the philosopher kings are and how they are related to his theory of the Forms.
In his theory of the Forms Plato says the world is divided into two realms. One is the visible, which we understand through our senses. The other is what he calls the intelligible, which we can understand only with our mind. The visible world is the one we see around us. The intelligible world is comprised of the Forms. Plato tells us that the Forms are abstract, changeless absolutes such as Goodness, Beauty, Redness, and Sweetness. They exist in permanent relation to the visible realm and make the visible possible. An apple is red and sweet because it participates in the Forms of Redness and Sweetness. Only the Forms are real objects of knowledge because only they possess the eternal unchanging truth that the mind – and not the senses – can apprehend.
One implication is that only philosophers whose minds are properly trained can grasp the Forms can know anything at all. In order to be able and just rulers the philosophers must know the Form of the Good. The Form of the Good is the source of all other Forms, and of knowledge, truth, and beauty.
Among Plato’s many intellectual talents was mathematics, and it’s likely that geometry was the origin of the theory of the Forms. If you draw a line, or a forty-five degree angle, or a triangle or a circle, it could be argued that all you have are representations of these geometric shapes. A line has only one dimension, but the width of your pencil mark gives it two, although one is very narrow. We ignore the second dimension for the purposes of a geometric exercise, but nevertheless it is only a representation of an abstract, absolute Line. Plato’s view of Goodness, Redness, and Sweetness are parallel to the abstract geometric concept of the Line.
Plato finds that his Forms are too abstract to be described directly, so he uses analogies. He says the Form of the Good is to the intelligible realm what the sun is to the visible realm. Using the allegory of the cave, Plato paints an evocative portrait of the philosopher’s soul moving through the stages of cognition through visible reality into the intelligible reality, and finally grasping the Form of the Good. He says education should not try to put knowledge into the soul. Instead, it should try to put the right desires into it – to instill the correct values. The way to do that is to fill the soul with a longing for truth, so that it wants to move past the visible world into the intelligible, and ultimately to the Form of the Good.
Philosophers are the only class of men who possess knowledge. Because they value truth above all else they are the most just men. To emphasize the importance of the ruler being a philosopher king, he contrasts this type of ruler to the most unjust man – the tyrant. In light of that comparison, Plato contends that justice is worthwhile for its own sake.
In Book Nine Plato presents three arguments for believing that it’s desirable to be just. As he sketches his psychological portrait of the tyrant, he shows that injustice tortures a man’s psyche. In contrast, the just soul is a healthy, happy one. Next he argues that each of the three main character types – money-loving, honor-loving, and truth-loving – has its own idea of pleasure and the good life. However, only the philosopher is wise enough to judge which is best because only he has experienced all three types of pleasure. The others should accept the philosopher’s judgment and conclude that the philosophical pleasures are the most pleasant, and that the just life is the best. He says that only philosophical pleasure is really pleasure at all, and that all other pleasure is simply the cessation of pain.
None of these arguments proves that justice is desirable apart from its consequences. Instead they establish that it’s always accompanied by true pleasure. The just life is good in and of itself because it involves grasping these ultimate goods, imitating their order and harmony, thereby incorporating them into one’s own life. In other words, justice is good because it’s connected to the Form of the Good, although he hints that the just man fares better in the afterlife.
Plato ends the Republic with a nasty comment on the arts. Having defined justice and established it as the greatest good, he says that poets must be banished from his city. He says poets appeal to the basest part of the soul by imitating unjust inclinations. By encouraging us to indulge ignoble emotions in sympathy with the characters depicted in poetry, and by extension in drama, poets encourage us to indulge these emotions. In other words, poetry contributes to making us unjust.
Welcome to Section Five of our discussion of the Republic of Plato. In this section we’ll provide a more detailed examination of the work. The Republic is a long and intellectually challenging work. Some of the conclusions reached within its ten books are difficult to grasp because of the complexity of Plato’s ideas and unfamiliar philosophical terminology. There are differences of scholarly opinion on some points. We’ll try to present Plato’s main ideas as clearly as possible.
In The Republic Plato sets out to answer two questions: what is justice? and why should we be just? Book One is the scene setter that establishes these challenges.
When Book One opens, Socrates is returning home from a religious festival with his young friend Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers. The travelers meet Adeimantus, another brother of Plato, and the young nobleman Polemarchus, who invites them to his house. There they join Polemarchus’ father Cephalus and others. The discussion turns to the subject of justice.
Socrates poses the question, “What is justice?” Then he refutes every suggestion offered but gives no definition of his own. All that’s achieved is that the others feel less sure of their beliefs. This is a familiar scenario in Plato’s dialogues. The dialogs usually end when the discussion reaches this deadlock. The Republic moves beyond and Socrates develops his theory of justice over the next nine books.
Cephalus is a rich, respected city elder and the group’s host. He’s Plato’s spokesman for tradition. He says justice means living up to your legal obligations and being honest. But Socrates counters by asking whether one should return a weapon to a madman. Legally you should, yet this would be unjust since it would jeopardize others.
At this point, Cephalus excuses himself to meet another commitment and his son Polemarchus gives his definition. He says justice means that you owe friends help and enemies harm. Polemarchus offers the view of the ambitious young politician.
Socrates replies that our judgment concerning friends and enemies is fallible, so this could harm good people and help bad ones. Not all of our friends are virtuous, nor are all of our enemies evil.
Now Thrasymachus, a Sophist, speaks up. Sophists were educators hired as tutors to the sons of the wealthy. Many of them did not to believe in objective truth or objective standards of right and wrong. They regarded law and morality as conventions.
In this dialog, Thrasymachus represents the Sophists’ campaign to do away with justice. He says justice is the advantage of the strong over the weak. He says being just works to the advantage of others. On the surface, the view put forward by Thrasymachus is that one should ignore justice because it’s an unnatural restraint on our desires. A more subtle interpretation would be that Thrasymachus is claiming that the norms of justice are conventions imposed by rulers to promote their interests and oppress their subjects.
Socrates puts forward arguments that make Thrasymachus admit that he’s promoting injustice as a virtue. Then he launches into a complex chain of reasoning which concludes that injustice cannot be a virtue because it’s contrary to wisdom, which is a virtue.
As the discussion continues in Book Two Glaucon, one of Socrates’ young companions, states that all goods can be divided into three classes. In the first category are things we desire only for their consequences, like physical training and medical treatment. Second are things we desire for their own sake, such as joy. In the highest category are things we desire both for their own sake and for what we get from them, like knowledge, sight, and health. Glaucon wants Socrates to prove is that justice belongs to the highest class of goods.
Glaucon says most people classify justice in the first group of goods. They view justice as a necessary evil because not having it is an even greater evil. Since we can all suffer from each other’s injustices, we make a social contract agreeing to be just to one another.
To emphasize this point, Glaucon invokes the legend of the ring of Gyges, which makes its possessor invisible. Glaucon contends that even the most just man would behave unjustly if he had this ring. He would indulge his materialistic, power-hungry, and lustful urges. He says this proves that people are only just because they fear punishment.
Plato has shown in other dialogs that discussion with people who disagree completely leads to deadlock. And so in the characters of Glaucon and Adeimantus, Socrates encounters disagreements on points or emphasis, but he can build his case by responding to them.
Socrates’ response to the challenge – to show that justice not only is good, but is good for us – takes most of the rest of The Republic to develop.
He begins by saying there are two kinds of justice. One is political, the justice of a city or state. The other is individual justice. First he develops his concept of the just city, and this continues right through Book Four. Instead of trying to locate political justice, he will create it by describing a perfectly just city.
In his perfect city each citizen specializes in the role for which he is best suited. There are three categories – the producers, the guardians, and the rulers.
The producers are further specialized. The carpenter confines his activities to construction, for example, and the farmer produces agricultural goods. The just city will be mainly populated with producers who provide the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, health, and shelter. To produce luxury goods, it will also have service providers like merchants, actors, tutors, and beauticians.
The city’s prosperity will lead to wars, so there must be a warrior class to keep the peace within the city and protect it from outside threats.
Guardians must develop the right balance between gentleness and toughness. They can be neither thugs nor wimps. They must be chosen carefully to ensure that they have the correct nature. The guardians should be spirited, or honor-loving; philosophical, or knowledge-loving; and physically strong.
Guardians must also be carefully educated. Socrates spends a lot of time detailing how they must be educated. He sees this as crucial to maintaining the city’s purity. The guardians require physical training for the body and music and poetry for the soul.
However, the music and poetry must be filtered. The stories told to the young guardians-in-training must be closely supervised because they will shape their values. The last part of Book Two is a discussion of stories that ensure that they aren’t exposed to negative role..
At the end of Book Four, Plato develops his view that individual justice mirrors the political justice of the state. He says the soul of every individual has a three part structure similar to the three classes of a society. The rational part of the soul seeks truth and is responsible for our philosophical inclinations. There is a spirited part of the soul, which strives for honor and is responsible for our feelings of anger and indignation. The appetitive part of the soul lusts after material things and money.
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