Plato's Republic

by Plato

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Plato's Republic Summary

The Republic by Plato is a philosophical text that tries to define justice and show how a just society would function.

  • Plato describes an ideal society and shows how different societies devolve from that ideal.
  • One of the most famous sections is the allegory of the cave, which Plato uses to argue that people mistake earthly appearances for true reality.
  • In addition, Plato discusses the nature of the soul and argues that there are three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. He argues that a just person is one whose soul is in harmony, with each part doing its proper function.

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Last Updated June 8, 2023.

Plato's Republic is a foundational work of philosophy and political theory, and holds a paramount position in Western intellectual discourse. It was written by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in the 4th century BCE, and is considered one of the most influential works of its kind. The book's primary purpose is a profound exploration of justice, ethics, and the structure of a just society.

Amidst the political turmoil of Athens following the Peloponnesian War, Plato undertook the task of addressing the fundamental question of establishing a just and stable state, questions which are still relevant today. In The Republic, Plato constructs an intricate metaphorical city-state, Kallipolis, to outline his vision of an ideal society. By delving into themes such as the nature of knowledge, the role of education, and the conflict between personal desires and the common good, The Republic challenges readers to contemplate the foundations of governance and the pursuit of justice. The book's enduring significance lies in its ability to provoke critical reflection on the principles that shape societies and the eternal quest for a just social order.

Short Summary of the Text:

Socrates, visiting Polemarchus’ house, enters into a conversation on the nature of justice. Several different definitions are presented by the various guests. After finding each of these lacking, Socrates attempts to define justice himself. This requires that he first describe justice on the scale of the state (or “The Republic”). Here, Socrates finds justice to be in each person performing the task at which he1 excels.

Since the modern “fevered” state necessitates soldiers, Socrates asserts that a method must be found to ensure that they do their job well. He then lays out a system of education that will make them the best possible soldiers. Out of this well-disciplined group, the rulers of society—the Guardians—will be chosen. The goal of society will be the happiness of the community, a goal that will be achieved because of the beliefs held by the various classes.

After discussing the role of philosophy and the philosopher in society, Socrates concludes that the philosopher would be the ideal ruler. Socrates uses the parable of the ship of state, the simile of the divided line, and the allegory of the cave to express the philosopher’s ability to see the truth and use this knowledge to guide the state. Socrates then discusses the various inferior forms government can take, concluding that a despotic government is worst, with democracy only slightly better.

Returning to the question of justice, Socrates asserts that the just life is happier and justice leads to a profitable life. Following the path of justice makes society better, and the gods reward a just man. Asserting the existence of a soul, Socrates tells his final parable, the Myth of Ur. This enables him to show that the benefits of justice continue in the afterlife, where the unjust are punished and repeat the mistakes they made on earth. In conclusion, Socrates finds that virtue and the good life are indeed profitable, in this world and the next.

Estimated Reading Time
Although The Republic’s conversational style makes it surprisingly easy to read, some sections are difficult to digest. In addition, taking time to reflect on the work as one reads it aids comprehension.

For this reason, a good understanding of the book necessitates it be read in at least two sittings. For a reader who is generally unfamiliar with the ideas presented in The Republic, four sittings would not be unreasonable.

Suggested breaks Approximate reading time
Books I–III 90 minutes
Books IV–VI 2 hours
Books VII–VIII 90 minutes
Books IX–X 90 minutes

These breaks are easily digestible, with the important elements of the book distributed evenly among them.

NOTE: Quotes within this work are from the second (1991) edition of Allan Bloom’s 1968 translation. While the ten “books” follow the original limitations of papyrus transcription, the line numbers refer to the customary breaks of Stephanus’s 1578 edition, included in almost every version of The Republic. The work starts at line 327; breaks between books are occasionally discontinuous.

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