SUMMARY OF PLATO’S REPUBLIC Like Plato’s other works, this one is in the form of a dialogue. The narrator is Socrates himself, and the very first line that Plato puts into his mouth reveals something important about him: “I walked down to the Piraeus yesterday [emphasis added]...” What does the word “yesterday” tell us? That after what probably was an all-night conversation, the very next day Socrates is back in Athens, presumably at his hangout in the Agora, the large open-air market in that city.1 In other words, he talked all night, walked back to Athens in the morning, and then with little or no sleep was back in his usual place, repeating from memory the equivalent of 250 pages of a dialogue that he had conducted the previous evening. Not only must he have been a prodigious talker, but his physical powers must have been considerable as well. Plato doesn’t hit the reader over the head with this information, but lets the reader infer it from the clues he provides.
Socrates gets playfully “kidnapped” on his way back to Athens from the port city of Piraeus, about five miles away, by some young men he is acquainted with and is persuaded to attend an all-night festival there. He will stay at the house of Cephalus, a retired manufacturer, and they will go out after dinner and watch the festival. What follows is the events of the evening and night. When they arrive at Cephalus’ home, the old man, seated comfortably, greets Socrates warmly, telling him how glad he is to see him and that he should come down to Piraeus more often. Then he starts telling him how much he is at peace in his old age and goes on for a little while in this self-satisfied manner while Socrates starts to pick holes in his reasoning. He soon realizes that Socrates is more than he bargained for and retires from the room, leaving the discussion to the young men, who are more capable of responding to Socrates’ close questioning and find it both enlightening and entertaining.
Cephalus left when, after he had raised the subject of justice, Socrates’ response made his own comment seem foolish. Thereupon the young men induce Socrates—he doesn’t need much persuasion—to discuss the nature of justice with them, and he gladly responds.
Early in the discussion Socrates is interrupted by Thrasymachus (the name means “bold in combat” or “bold in battle”), who believes might makes right and bursts into the conversation, almost physically attacking Socrates out of anger at the drivel about justice he thinks Socrates is spouting. Socrates manages to calm him down and then, by a clever process of question and answer, makes him retreat step by step and calm down.
Thrasymachus, made to look foolish by Socrates, remains quiet the rest of the evening. Meanwhile, Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, although undoubtedly entertained by Socrates’ defeat of Thrasymachus, are not satisfied that he truly has defended the concept of justice. Socrates responds with further arguments with which they still are not fully satisfied. At this point he suggests they try to see justice not simply as it might exist in the individual human being, but “writ large,” by sketching an ideal state, that is, an ideal Greek city-state or polis. The conversation that follows must have lasted till very late at night or even through the night, and it appears that the participants in the dialogue never actually attended the festival, but that the night’s entertainment was provided by Socrates.
Socrates thinks that with the refutation of Thrasymachus, the discussion is over, but the young men want him not just to rebut an immoralist, but truly to show that justice is better than injustice in every way. So one of them, Glaucon, proposes to take up Thrasymachus’ theory, glorifying the life of injustice, and see if Socrates really can rebut that view. He tells the mythical story of Gyges, a shepherd who discovers a ring that enables him to become invisible. Armed with this ring, Gyges seduces his Queen and kills his King—the point being that if we all thought we could get away with evil deeds, we would commit them. Glaucon’s brother, Adeimantus, also makes an eloquent speech praising injustice.
In response, Socrates observes that since justice exists in a whole community as well as in an individual, wouldn’t it be better to examine it in a whole society? We could see it then on a larger scale and thereby examine it more closely. Thus, they agree to construct in imagination an ideal polis or city-state that would perfectly embody the idea or ideal of justice.
They start small with just a few people. This is appropriate, because ancient Greece, a mountainous country, was divided into many city-states, some consisting of only a few thousand people and several much larger, the largest being Athens with approximately half a million people and colonies scattered about the Mediterranean.
They first discuss the different laborers, tradesmen, and professionals who will make up their state and the type of land they will need. Then who will protect it? The best idea is to have a class of warriors, whom they call hoi phýlakoi, the watchmen or guards, sentinels, guardians, or protectors. Maybe one could even call them “the police.” It develops that these guardians or policemen will be the ruling class of the society.
In our terms, this is decidedly a state resembling the government of Athens’ chief rival, Sparta, which was run by a military class to which the lower class of peasants was subordinate. The Spartans had a strong army, whereas the Athenians had a strong navy, which they used to defend their overseas empire. In the 5th century B.C., the two city-states formed rival leagues, confederations of city-states, and eventually went to war. The Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431-404 B.C., with periods of truce, ended with the defeat of Athens. The conversation that comprises The Republic probably took place during one of the truces.
In short, the ideal state that Socrates and his pals are sketching would have been politically suspect to the mass of Athenians. While it would be a stretch to call it a fascist state, it was definitely right-wing, if one looks at it in conventional terms. Maybe “police state,” a modern term, also is too strong a description, but it does come to mind.
They then take up the education of the guardsmen. The literature the boys will be exposed to will have to be censored because their young minds must be exposed only to the best models to imitate so that they will grow up to be truly just rulers. This means eliminating Homer, Hesiod, the Greek tragedians, et al., all of whom constituted much of the normal curriculum for those Greek boys who were fortunate enough to be formally educated—something else to offend conventional opinion. They have a good time going through the classics of Greek education at some length, just to drive home the point.
The censorship of the classics continues into Book III.
The education will be rich in poetry and music in order to instill a sense of rhythm and harmony deep into the minds and souls of the young policemen. They won’t be taught menial occupations. Those are unfit for the ruling class. Moreover, those in charge of the guardsmen’s education will see that only the right kind of poetry and music is taught them—they’ve got to protect them for whatever the ancient Greek equivalent was of hard rock and rap and so on.
There also will be intense physical training, on the principle of a healthy mind in a healthy body. The guardsmen’s diet will be regulated to be like that of athletes in training. In other words, they will be athletes as well as scholars.
What will be the manner of life of the guardsmen? No private property beyond the bare necessities. They won’t live in private homes, but in a common barracks with a common mess, like soldiers. They will be fed, clothed, and housed, but they won’t receive any pay.
The different classes of the state will be characterized by the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. The rulers will have wisdom; the guardsmen, courage; the farmers and workers, temperance; and the society, well-organized in this way, will be just. This arrangement corresponds to the three parts of the individual soul. Society is the soul writ large.
Carrying the previous arrangements to their logical conclusion, all property will be held in common, including women and children. Furthermore, women will be treated as equals of men. They will perform the same tasks; they will exercise naked as Greek males were accustomed to do, and they will do this along with the men. They will even fight together with them in battle. Men and women will compete equally in every occupation.
The institution of the family will be abolished. Children will be brought up in common. Nor can a well-ordered state permit unregulated unions between the sexes. During the childbearing period of adulthood, at regular intervals marriage festivals will occur, and couples will be paired by lot. However, the lots will be rigged by the rulers so that the best people of both sexes will be united in marriage. The couples will live together for the period of the festival for the sake of breeding.
Discussion of the qualities that characterize the philosophers, together with all the temptations that may corrupt him (or by implication, her). The process of selecting the philosophers will be rigorous because not many can meet the high standards that are required for a guardsman to become one of the rulers. There cannot be any justice in states until philosophers become kings and kings become philosophers. The philosopher will have to be very well-rounded, excellent both in mind and in body. He must strive for the highest object of knowledge, the knowledge of the Good. On the urging of the others, Socrates agrees to try to sketch the nature of the Good. The Good in the realm of ideas is analogous to the Sun in the physical world. Then comes the allegory of the divided line, in which the various levels of reality and the corresponding states of mind are outlined.
The allegory of the divided line is abstract, so Socrates gives a concrete version of it in the famous myth of the cave, which corresponds exactly to its divisions.
Then he goes on to the higher education of the policemen. They study various sciences such as mathematics in order to train the mind and soul both to be rulers and to transcend the physical world, in other words, to escape from the cave.
Books VIII and IX
Difficult as it might be to realize, they have sketched the ideal state. Now Socrates observes that even if it could be constructed, it would be on too high a level for human beings to maintain and would inevitably decline. He then traces the stages in its decline, and the corresponding stages of decline in the character of the ruling class. Eventually he comes to the lowest level, tyranny or despotism, and the tyrant or unjust man, whose character he describes at some length. The unjust man will be the unhappiest of all men.
At the end of Book IX, Glaucon says that the republic they have been founding exists only in the realm of discourse, but nowhere on earth.
To this, Socrates replies, “Perhaps there is a pattern set up in the heavens for one who desires to see and to found a republic like this in himself.”
In the first part of Book X Socrates continues his criticism of the Greek poets and tragedians, saying that he will either ban them from his ideal state or only let them back in a very restricted way. He objects to their appeal to the emotions, rather than to the mind.
He concludes with an argument or proof for the immortality of the soul, and the dialogue concludes with another “myth” or parable of the reincarnation of the soul, the myth of Er, a warrior who dies and miraculously comes back from the dead and relates what he has seen in the other world.
Socrates’ talkathon on the ideal state probably lasted all night. By this reckoning, the allegory of the line and the myth of the cave occurred sometime after midnight and the proof of the immortality of the soul and the myth of Er occurred as the gray dawn was breaking. Thereafter Socrates went about his business and later in the day was back at his familiar place in the Agora relating the events of the preceding night.
1 Think of the word ‘agoraphobia,’ fear of open spaces, which is taken from the Greek agorá and phóbos, fear or terror. The agorá was the place where the Assembly of the citizens of a city met. It also was used for debates and trials, and as a marketplace. In modern terms, it was a combination of a public meetingplace and a shopping mall.