Greek philosophical dialogues, written c. 3857-60 b.c.
Regarded as Plato's most important work, the Republic has long been studied as a seminal text of the Western literary and philosophical canon. In this group of philosophical dialogues, Plato uses a conversational prose format to explore the nature of society, seeking to define the characteristics of an ideal society, or republic. Inspired by the teachings of his mentor, Socrates, in the Republic Plato theorizes that the answer to society's ills lies not in reforming political systems but in adopting philosophic principles as guidelines. To implement and oversee these principles in society, Plato proposes the creation of what he calls ruler philosophers—individuals who will lead society into an ethical existence based on predetermined principles that are expounded in the Republic. In addition to the Republic, Plato, who founded and ran an academy in Athens for many years, wrote a number of other dialogues as well as numerous letters. Because of the influence of the ideas expressed in various dialogues, including the Republic, Plato has come to occupy a key position in the history of western philosophy and is often called the father of philosophic idealism. Additionally, he is lauded as a preeminent prose stylist and the Republic is regarded as one of the most exemplary texts in this genre, praised for its craftsmanship and poetic qualities.
A citizen of Athens, Plato was born in approximately 428 b.c. and lived in a period of political tumult marked by the recent death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles in 429 b.c. and the strife of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 b.c. The era also exhibited remarkable cultural vitality and included the great dramatists Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, of whom Plato was a younger contemporary. Plato was descended from a distinguished family of statesmen; his mother's cousin Critias and his maternal uncle Charmides, both portrayed in eponymous dialogues, belonged to the Thirty Tyrants, the oligarchs who ruled Athens in cooperation with Sparta after the Peloponnesian War. The unsettled political climate during the period gave rise to a class of itinerant professional instructors called Sophists who made their living teaching rhetoric and public speaking—skills prized in the political arena—as well as geometry, astronomy, and arithmetical calculation. Socrates—whom the young Plato met while the elder Athenian discoursed in the streets and homes of the city on topics related to the virtuous life—objected to the aims of the Sophists, asserting that they manipulated language for their own ends, obfuscating and confusing in order to succeed in argumentation, rather than elucidating and searching for truth. Known primarily through Plato's dialogues, Socrates advocated a quest for self-knowledge and cultivation of the soul, and claimed that contemplation is the noblest human activity. Plato's own career as a writer spanned the greater part of his life. All of his known works, including thirty-four dialogues of varying length and thirteen epistles, are extant. Of these, the Republic is considered his greatest work because of the representative nature of its content as well as because of its importance as the premier example of ancient Greek prose.
Plot and Major Characters
Composed as a dramatic dialogue among various characters, the principal among them Socrates, the Republic is divided into ten main books. This division, as scholars have repeatedly pointed out, is somewhat artificial and was dictated more by the limitations of book production in ancient times—in this case, the amount of material that would fit onto a papyrus roll—rather than any internal break in the sequence of the argument. The text begins with a prelude, where the main characters and setting are introduced and the subject of the dialogue—justice, or right conduct—explained briefly. In addition to Socrates, who is the main...
(The entire section is 106,029 words.)