Plato's Republic by Plato

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Book 6 Summary and Analysis

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 to counteract the charges of the Athenians that philosophers (especially Socrates) sought to overturn the moral foundations of the state; instead, they are depicted as the only true guardians of the laws and customs. The other aspects respond to the common Athenian belief that philosophers themselves were immoral, as summarized in the next section.

The description Socrates paints of the true philosopher is congruent with the previous description of the Guardian. The philosopher is more remarkable, however, because he acquired these noble traits without the full support of society.

2. The Corruption of the Philosopher (487b–497a)

Adeimantus counters Socrates’ description with the common view of philosophers: most of them are strange, some of them are vicious, and at best they are utterly useless.

To explain why society sees philosophers as useless, Socrates tells the parable of the ship of state. The captain (representing the people) is strong but not a good navigator because he is nearsighted. The crew (representing the politicians) fights to wrest control of the ship away from the captain, although none of them know how to navigate. Failing to convince the captain to give them the ship, the sailors overpower him with narcotics and drink and feast away.

Meanwhile, the navigator (who represents the philosopher) is condemned as useless because of the length of time needed to learn his worthless skill. The crew does not even believe that it is possible to learn navigation. For the crew, respect goes to the person who is best at controlling the captain.

Socrates agrees that philosophers are often corrupted. He blames this situation on the effect of a bad environment on a man with an excess of talent. For example, innate leadership potential attracts people who will flatter a man until he becomes insufferable and ambitious. These companions will discourage this natural philosopher from following the path of philosophy. He will eventually become vicious and harm the body politic.

Yet the worst element of the Athenian environment is the temptation to go along with the crowd, which is made even stronger by various punishments for those who offend this code. Ultimately, Athenian society makes the emergence of a truly good man nearly impossible.

Socrates condemns the Sophists as mere animal trainers. While they know how to get their animal (the public) to respond in a certain way, they fail to question the morality of the actions their animal takes. For this reason they are incapable of prescribing an action on moral grounds; they can only recommend actions that suit the public’s tastes.

Philosophy suffers greatly under these conditions. While they continue, the best thing a philosopher can do is avoid politics altogether.

Plato roundly damns Athenian political culture in this metaphor-laden passage. The public is described as a many-headed hydra, the rhetoriticians who controlled the Assembly as animal trainers, and the whole system as a misguided ship. While moderns would praise such a system for its high degree of participation, Plato instead curses it as a society that is incapable of taking the right course because it only wants to hear itself praised.

Plato’s invective, while providing a good look at Athenian opinion regarding philosophy, seems also to be...

(The entire section is 1,766 words.)