Plato's Republic Summary
1. Introduction: Cephalus and the Conventional View of Justice (327–331d)
While walking back to town with Glaucon, Socrates is invited to spend the evening at Polemarchus’ house. Upon arrival, Socrates and Polemarchus’ father, Cephalus, discuss the changes that occur with age. Cephalus says he is happy to be free of the passions of youth, adding that age is an easy burden to bear for those who are “sensible and good-tempered” (329d). With prodding from Socrates, Cephalus goes on to say that he is happy that he is well-off, insofar as it has made it easier for him to avoid wrongdoing. This knowledge gives him peace, because he is unafraid of what his judgment will be in the world of the dead.
Socrates then asks Cephalus if it is sufficient to say that one has lived justly merely if one has been truthful and returned what one has borrowed. When Cephalus agrees, Socrates presents the question of returning a weapon to a man gone mad. Since obeying Cephalus’ definition of justice would produce a bad result, Socrates finds Cephalus’ definition insufficient.
Polemarchus interrupts, saying his father’s definition is correct. Cephalus takes this opportunity to depart, leaving his son to continue the argument.
In this section, justice, the main topic of The Republic, is introduced casually by Cephalus. Socrates will later find justice valuable in the individual insofar as it enables him to control his passions, as Cephalus has done, and praise justice for its value in the afterlife, as Cephalus now does. But while Cephalus’ life epitomizes that of a just man in normal society, Socrates finds that he has not really reflected on justice.
Notice the references to sayings of the poets. In a society in which books were an oddity, poetry was a major part of a young man’s education. Most revered of the poets was Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, who was referred to simply as “the poet.” His Iliad served the Greeks as a combination of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
Socrates’ “kidnapping” to Polemarchus’ house foreshadows the debate that will later take place between Socrates and Thrasy¬machus. Superior force convinces Socrates to accompany Polemarchus’ party, but Socrates offers debate as a method of ensuring his escape.
2. The Conventional View of Justice Continued: Polemarchus (331e–336a)
Elaborating on his father’s position, Polemarchus asserts that “it is just to give to each what is owed,”...
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1. Justice as a Convenience (357–367e)
Glaucon, playing devil’s advocate, argues that justice is a good that is unenthusiastically practiced for the benefits it brings. Justice and law are established by men acting in common in order to avoid being on the receiving end of injustice. Glaucon gives the story of Gyges’ ring of invisibility to show that every man would prefer to act unjustly if removed from fear of punishment, adding that anyone who didn’t would be considered an idiot.
Glaucon then contrasts the life of a perfectly unjust man with a reputation for being just to the life of a perfectly just man with a reputation for injustice. Glaucon says it is clear that the just man will be miserable and the unjust blessed, proving that it is better to seem rather than to be just; and, thanks to the unjust man’s ability to propitiate the gods, he will be favored by them as well.
Adeimantus joins in, arguing that justice is valued for the benefits that come from it: first, from the good reputation it gives; and second, for the blessings it leads the gods to bestow in this life and the next. He concludes by asking Socrates, who has spent his life studying this matter, to compare justice to injustice, showing that justice is superior, not by virtue of its material benefits, but by virtue of its positive effect on a man’s soul.
According to Desmond Lee, Plato here returns to Thrasy¬machus’ arguments because “the view which he represents needs a clearer statement and a fairer treatment” (Lee, 1974:102). This gives Socrates an opportunity to defeat Thrasymachus’ views through more than rationalization.
While expanding Thrasymachus’ basic argument, Glaucon adds to it what would now be called a “social contract” explanation for the origin of justice. Its story of a people choosing obedience to the law as preferable to anarchy and injustice is not unique (see Hobbes’ The Leviathan), but the idea of the people themselves making these laws is—especially at this time—typically Greek.
This section also provides an arena for Plato to discuss the question of reputation. Throughout his works, Plato criticizes the great importance Athenians placed on good reputation and appearance. Plato preferred that people focus on who they are inside rather than wasting time worrying about what other people thought of them.
2. Primitive Social Organization: The City of Pigs (368–372d)
Socrates decides to first examine justice on the scale of the community. Socrates claims that society is formed because individuals are not self-sufficient. Within the social context, it is best that each member practice the single skill at which he excels. The town is allowed...
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1. Educating the Guardians: Failings of Poetry (386–392c)
Socrates adds that, because bravery in war is necessary, children must not be taught to be afraid of death. Stories that portray “Hades’ domain” as “full of terror” will be banned, as well as laments by heroes (386b). Socrates cites many passages from the Iliad and the Odyssey that would not be permitted. Further constraints will be put on literature to discourage laughter and lying and encourage self-restraint.
Socrates’ critique of Homer as a bad influence becomes even clearer in this book, which provides numerous quotes that show (to Plato) how Homer has misguided Greek’s beliefs. While Plato’s heretical implications can be dismissed today, his censorship would do much to ruin the very aspects that have made Homer’s works timeless literary works.
Later in the Republic, Socrates will replace this foundation of Greek society with a new myth, one that unifies rather than divides society.
2. Proper Forms of Music and Poetry (392c–403c)
While constraints on the representation of heroes and gods are easily produced, it is more difficult to define how the poets should deal with men, given that justice has not yet been defined. At present, poets use descriptions of justice similar to those presented by Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Thrasymachus. Socrates says that poets must instead praise justice.
In order to describe what type of poetry is permissible for the Guardians to read aloud, Socrates distinguishes between imitation [alternate translation representation], which is the direct address of a character, and simple narrative, which is when the poet speaks as himself. Because the Guardians are only to aim at one kind of excellence, they will not be allowed to read the words of any person or thing that is unlike themselves—especially if it is a person who is unheroic. For this reason, only poetry that is primarily narrative will be allowed, and any poet or actor who specializes in representation will be banned from the city.
For music, only the kinds that are suitable for the depiction of “moderate and courageous men” wil be allowed (399c). This will result in a reduction of permissible musical instruments and rythms. Other arts and crafts will be similarly limited to the depiction of what is good. Ultimately, this state of education will teach a man to love beauty and hate ugliness instinctively, which will in later life lead him to love reason.
In loving relations between older and younger men, only the affection appropriate to a son may be expressed. Sexual desires must be controlled.
Socrates’ prior assertion that a man should only practice one trade forms a weak base for his desire to keep the Guardians from reciting the words of characters who do not behave in a Guardian-like fashion. Socrates supports his elimination of the representation of nonideal types by saying that a man can only represent one kind of character well. This argument is a poor one, since a good actor is known for his range, and both Plato and Socrates must have seen actors who performed varied roles well.
A stronger argument, which parallels modern ones used against violence in entertainment, is that having the Guardians recite these speeches will constitute their modeling themselves after these bad characters. Socrates further claims (at 401c) that living among representations of bad things has a cumulative negative effect on the soul. These arguments, like modern ones, are based on logic, not on empirical evidence.
Socrates’ remarks on the proper nature of loving relations between men should not be ignored. Homosexual relations between men were celebrated in Greek society. The most common form was one in which an older man served as a mentor to a younger man; it is referred to in asides throughout the Republic. The older man was often besotted with the charms of the youth, while the younger man was more emotionally reserved.
Plato did not approve of the sexual nature of these pederastic relations, although he does not question the concept of passionate love between men. Given women’s lack of education, it is...
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1. Happiness of the Guardians (419–421c)
Adeimantus questions whether or not the Guardians will be happy, as they will possess none of those things that are “conventionally held to belong to men who are going to be blessed” (419a).
Socrates responds that, while the Guardians will likely be happy, the goal has been the happiness of the whole city. The conventional definition of happiness as wealth would make craftsmen poor at their crafts. It would be far worse for the Guardians to be corrupted in such a way, for if they fail at their task the city will be destroyed.
Most interesting in this passage is the references it makes to Socrates’...
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1. The Position of Women (451d–457b)
Adeimantus asks Socrates to elaborate about the community of wives and children which he had briefly mentioned earlier. Referring to the previous analogies to watchdogs, Socrates asserts that the women in society should be trained and expected to perform the same duties as the men. Women and men are not of different natures, so women are capable of performing every occupation. Therefore, having women serve as Guardians is quite natural, as it is among the many things at which they may excel. Men will naturally be better than women at every task as well as being stronger; but training the women in this way will result in the state producing “the best...
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1. The Philosopher’s Character (484–487a)
Philosophers who have true vision are best suited to guard the laws and customs of a city. Other people are blind compared to them. Philosophers love truth, spurn physical pleasures, and don’t fear death. They are temperate, courageous, and just. Philosophers also learn easily and have a good memory. Finally, philosophers’ grace and sense of proportion enable them to easily understand the nature of the forms. These, then, are the people to whom the state must be entrusted.
The description of a philosopher that Plato puts in Socrates’ mouth is anything but humble. To some degree, it is designed specifically...
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1. The Allegory of the Cave (514–521b)
Socrates continues his indirect description of the Good with his allegory of the cave. In the cave, men live shackled to the wall, only capable of staring straight ahead. All they can see are the shadows of images carried between a curtain and a fire by some other people, who talk and make noises. The prisoners assume that what they see and hear is reality.
If a man were released and forced outside, the brilliance would be painful and make everything difficult for him to understand. Socrates says the man would prefer the cave, but as his eyes acclimated he would realize that he had been living a life of illusion in a world where he never...
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1. Introduction to the Four Imperfect Societies and Their Characteristic Individuals (543–545c)
After recapitulating the elements of the ideal state, Socrates names the four imperfect states. The first and best is the Cretan or Spartan type (called “timarchy”); the second is oligarchy; the third, democracy; and the fourth and worst is tyranny. Socrates says that there are also five sorts of men: the best, corresponding to the aristocratic regime of the city in speech, and one for each of the degenerate regimes. Socrates describes these five men as falling on a descending scale of justice. He leaves until later the question of their varying degrees of happiness.
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1. The Tyrannical Individual (571–576b)
In order to explain the evolution of the tyrannical man, Socrates sub-divides the unnecessary pleasures, creating a category of anti-social pleasures. While these may exist within everyone, most people control theirs through the influence of the law and the active intervention of their power of reason. The tyrant is a mixture of lust, drunkenness, and madness, evil passions that can exist in anyone (as is revealed by one’s dreams) but which the tyrant alone makes no attempt to restrain. By indulging his passions, the tyrannical man will find they grow insatiable and exhaust his funds attempting to satisfy them. He will completely lose all restraints...
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1. Critique of Art (595–605b)
Socrates reemphasizes the importance of the limits placed on poetry in the city in speech. Artists’ products are only imitations of reality, twice removed from the true characteristic of the world of forms. Artists’ (specifically poets’) claims to have broad knowledge about mankind are false. Socrates supports his claim by showing that nothing of value has come from Homer’s writings and that poets have not been men of action. Poets cannot be true educators because they do not know what is good.
Since artists neither use nor create the objects they depict, their representations lack the benefit of expert knowledge. For this reason, concludes...
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