Republic is the first in a long line of works that are generally classified as Utopian literature. Although Plato is primarily interested in political issues, he is less concerned with mapping out a practical strategy for revamping current practices in the Greek city-states than he is in explaining the optimal ways in which people should be governed. Subscribing to what some commentators have described as an unashamedly elitist viewpoint, Plato makes it clear that some people are destined to rule, others to be ruled. Essentially antidemocratic, he concentrates on describing ways those who have the capacity to lead should be educated for their positions of great responsibility. Such an attitude no doubt seems alien and even threatening to modern readers, especially those in Western societies, where democracy in some form or other has been in favor for more than two hundred years. Republic may grate on the nerves of some who dislike Plato’s concepts of social engineering and his distaste for artists. Others may feel his disdain for the masses links him with that most maligned of all political philosophers, Niccolò Machiavelli, whose advice is based on the notion that retaining power is the primary duty of those who rule.
One must remember, however, that Plato is at heart a philosopher. In Republic, he is interested in identifying the qualities of justice that should determine the governance of society. Undeterred by any popular sentiments for or against any particular political practice—Athens was a democracy during the years when Plato was writing his dialogues and teaching—the philosopher focuses on the ethical dimensions of leadership. He asks crucial questions: How ought one to govern, and how ought one be educated to serve in this significant social role? He is the first of the great political philosophers of the West.
Republic presents a fascinating defense of the author’s conception of the ideal state and gives the most sustained and convincing portrait of Socrates as a critical and creative philosopher ever presented. Other dialogues featuring Socrates may be superior as studies of the personality and character of Socrates, but the Republic is unexcelled as an exhibition of the famed Socratic method being brought to bear on such questions as “What is justice?” and “What kind of state would be most just?”
Although the constructive arguments of this dialogue come from the mouth of Socrates, it is safe to assume that much of the philosophy is Plato’s. As a rough reading rule, one may say that the method is Socratic, but the content is provided by Plato himself. Among the ideas that are presented and defended in the Republic are the Platonic theory of ideas (the formal prototypes of all things, objective or intellectual), the Platonic conception of the nature and obligations of the philosopher, and the Platonic theory and criticism of poetry. The central concern of the author is with the idea of justice in the state.
The dialogue is a discussion between Socrates and various friends while they are in Piraeus for a festival. The discussion of justice is provoked by a remark made by an old man, Cephalus, to the effect that the principal advantage of being wealthy is that a man near death is able to repay what he owes to the gods and to people, and is thereby able to be just in the hope of achieving a happy afterlife. Socrates objects to this conception of justice, maintaining that whether persons should return what they have received depends on the circumstances. For example, a man who has received dangerous weapons from his friend while the friend was sane should not, if he is just, return those weapons if the friend, while mad, demands them.
Polemarchus amends the idea and declares that it is just to help one’s friends and return to them what they are due, provided they are good and worthy of receiving the good. Enemies, on the other hand, should have harm done to them, for, as bad, that is what they are due. Socrates compels Polemarchus to admit that injuring anyone, even a wicked man, makes that person worse; and since no just person would ever sanction making others worse, justice must be something other than giving good to the good and bad to the bad.
Thrasymachus then proposes the theory that justice is whatever is to the interest of the stronger party. His idea is that justice is relative to the law, and the law is made by the stronger party according to his interests. In rebuttal, Socrates maneuvers Thrasymachus into saying that sometimes rulers make mistakes. If this is so, then sometimes the law is against their interests; when the law is against the interests of the stronger party, it is right to do what is not to the interest of the stronger party.
The secret of the Socratic method is evident from analysis of this argument. The term “interest” or “to the interest of” is ambiguous, sometimes meaning what one is interested in, what one wants, and at other times meaning what one could want if one were not in error. Examples in everyday life of such ambiguity are found in statements such as the following:...