Republic [Politeia] Plato
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 narrator of the dialogue, other characters include Glaucon and Adeimantus, elder brothers of Plato, and Polemarchus, a resident of Athens at whose house the conversation takes place. Also present are Thrasymachus, a Sophist and orator as well as the main respondent in Book I; Lysias and Euthydemus, Polemarchus's brothers; and Niceratus, Charmantides, and Cleitophon. Ostensibly a discussion about the nature of justice, expounded on first by Thrasymachus, who states the Sophist position that justice and its related conventions are rules that were imposed on society by those in power, the rest of the dialogue is mainly a response from Socrates to this statement. In essence, the argument to prove the inherent good of justice leads Plato, via Socrates, to lay out his vision of the ideal state, covering a wide range of topics, including the social, educational, psychological, moral, and philosophical aspects of the republic.
The main intention of the Republic is to define the principles that govern an ideal society. In doing so, Plato touches upon many important ideas about education, ethics, politics, and morality in this text. Scholars have pointed out that the main argument of the Republic is partly a response to the political unrest and instability Plato witnessed in contemporary Athenian society. Following the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens became a democracy of sorts, led mostly by laymen, who, in Plato's view, tended to implement policies based more on popular demand rather than necessity or principle. Thus, Plato developed a perspective that viewed all contemporary forms of government as corrupt, theorizing that the only hope for finding true justice both for society and the individual lies in philosophy, and that “mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power, or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers.” This is the central theme of the Republic. In the context of this premise, Plato touches upon several major issues, focusing the most significant discussions on the nature and definition of ethics, education, and the organization of society and politics, as well as religion and philosophy. In contrast to the Sophists, who advocated the primacy of rhetoric over moral training, Plato proposes the creation of an educational system that focuses on the molding of character, with the ultimate goal of the educator being not just imparting knowledge, but also the ability “to turn the mind's eye to the light so that it can see for itself.” According to Plato, one of the main problems of his society was the inability to distinguish true reality from reflections or images of reality. Plato employs his famous allegory of the cave to illustrate how mankind learns and can be mislead by the manner in which he learns. Plato's preferred educational system strictly controls the upbringing of the ruling class in order to help them differentiate between appearance and reality and form correct views. He advocates the study of mathematics and abstract ideas rather than art, music, or literature because the latter deal with representation of ideas, not ideas themselves; he even goes so far as to advocate censorship of art, when necessary, in the service of proper education. Another powerful focus in the Republic is the discussion of justice. Responding primarily to the Sophists' position, that morality is important only because of the social and personal consequences that follow, Plato contends that morality and justice are key components of an ideal society and that they must underlie all areas of human interaction.
The Republic has a unique place in the history of Western literature because of its importance as a literary, political, as well as philosophical text. Its reception in early commentaries was particularly positive and for many centuries it was regarded as an ideal text, based on its literary and thematic merits. A. E. Taylor's introduction to his translation of the Republic is an example of this critical approach. Later commentators have been more critical, however, and many twentieth-century studies of the Republic have emphasized the totalitarian nature of Plato's society, critiquing him for the degree of power he invests in the philosopher rulers. In her introduction to the Republic Julia Annas remarks on the power of the text and the persuasiveness of Plato's assessments, noting that in some ways, the systematic treatment of such important subjects as morality, politics, and knowledge is “designed to sweep the reader along,” often leading first-time readers to either accept the premise of the text without question or to reject it entirely. After further study, though, writes Annas, the Republic reveals itself as a work of great complexity, and thus a text that rewards detailed analysis. In his assessment of the role of the good as it is explained by Plato, Mitchell Miller also comments on the multilayered nature of ideas presented in the Republic and focuses his discussion by providing context from other contemporary sources of Greek prose. Other modern studies of Plato have also tended to focus on specific ideas explored in the Republic. For example, R. E. Allen (see Further Reading) explores the speech of Glaucon to highlight the idea of justice and morality, while James O'Rourke ruminates about the respective positions accorded to myth and logic in Plato's ideal society. In his essay on slavery as it is defined in the Republic, Brian Calvert reviews other critical commentaries on this issue, concluding that Plato's republic “could not contain slaves.” Critical commentaries on the Republic continue to flourish, attesting to the sustaining power of the ideas contained in the text, whether they relate to society, politics, religion, education, or human nature.
Apology (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Charmides (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Crito (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Euthyphro (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Gorgias (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Hippias Major (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Hippias Minor (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Ion (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Laches (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Lysis (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Protagoras (dialogue) before 387 b.c.
Republic, Book I (dialogue) before 387 b.c....
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SOURCE: Taylor, A. E. “The Republic.” In Plato: The Man and His Work, pp. 263-98. London, Eng.: Methuen, 1948.
[In the following essay, first published in 1926 and revised in 1937, Taylor provides a detailed analysis of the ideas, language, and philosophy of Plato's Republic.]
The Republic is at once too long a work, and too well known by numerous excellent summaries and commentaries, to require or permit analysis on the scale we have found necessary in dealing with the Phaedo or Protagoras. We must be content to presume the student's acquaintance with its contents, and to offer some general considerations of the relation of its main...
(The entire section is 19658 words.)
SOURCE: Lerner, Ralph. Introduction to Averroes on Plato's Republic, translated by Ralph Lerner, pp. xiii-xxviii. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974.
[In the following introduction to the medieval Arabic philosopher Averroes's commentary on Plato's Republic, Lerner discusses Averroes's approach to the text, noting that despite the differences in their religious backgrounds, Averroes exhibits a deep appreciation for Plato's philosophy.]
Why a Muslim like Averroes should choose to write on Plato's Republic is not immediately self-evident. Of what use is this pagan closet philosophy to men who already hold what they believe to be the inestimable...
(The entire section is 6273 words.)
SOURCE: Annas, Julia. Introduction to An Introduction to Plato's Republic, pp. 1-15. Oxford, Eng.: Clarendon Press, 1981.
[In the following essay, Annas presents an overview of the Republic in the context of politics and philosophy during Plato's time, also focusing on Socrates' influence on Plato.]
The Republic is Plato's best-known work, and there are ways in which it is too famous for its own good. It gives us systematic answers to a whole range of questions about morality, politics, knowledge, and metaphysics, and the book is written in a way designed to sweep the reader along and give a general grasp of the way Plato sees all these questions as...
(The entire section is 7141 words.)
SOURCE: Miller, Mitchell. “Platonic Provocations: Reflections on the Soul and the Good in the Republic.” In Platonic Investigations, edited by Dominic J. O'Meara, pp. 163-93. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Miller explicates the fundamental philosophical positions adopted by Plato in the Republic.]
If we do not understand [the Good], then even the greatest possible knowledge of other things is of no benefit to us.
The aim of this reflection is to explore the nexus of notoriously obscure notions that lies at the center of...
(The entire section is 16239 words.)
SOURCE: Calvert, Brian. “Slavery in Plato's Republic.” Classical Quarterly ns. 37, no. 2 (1987): 367-72.
[In the following essay, Calvert summarizes the critical debate over whether Plato's ideal republic would include slaves or not, concluding that although the standard critical view supports the existence of slavery in the republic, there is an equally balanced argument opposing the existence of the practice.]
For a number of years, in the not too distant past, there was a lively debate between Plato's defenders and critics over the question of whether his Republic contained slaves. However, since the appearance of an article by...
(The entire section is 3780 words.)
SOURCE: O'Rourke, James. “Mythos and Logos in the Republic.” Clio 16, no. 4 (summer 1987): 381-96.
[Characterizing the Republic as a “foundational text in Western thought,” O'Rourke contends that the emphasis accorded to logic over myth in this work imbues it with an inherent structural instability.]
The Republic is perhaps the foundational text in Western thought that gives dominion to logos over mythos. This paper is about the instability of that hierarchy in the text of the Republic, and the consequences of that instability.
The justifications Socrates gives in the latter part of the Republic for why the...
(The entire section is 7342 words.)
SOURCE: Skillen, Anthony. “Fiction Year Zero: Plato's Republic.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 32, no. 3 (July 1992): 201-08.
[In the following essay, Skillen presents an account of Plato's views on fiction as they are laid out in the Republic.]
Then it will be our first business to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest … the worst fault possible, especially if the fiction is an ugly one, is misrepresenting the nature of gods and heroes, like a portrait painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to their originals …
(The entire section is 3793 words.)
SOURCE: Aune, Bruce. “The Unity of Plato's Republic.” Ancient Philosophy 17, no. 2 (fall 1997): 291-308.
[In the following essay, Aune investigates charges of structural disunity between the two books of the Republic, maintaining that a close examination of the two parts reveals a style and method of inquiry in part II that are very similar to those of part I.]
How well does Republic i fit together with the books that follow? Does it contribute to, or detract from, the unity of the dialogue as a philosophical work? There is still disagreement about this matter.1 Irwin 1995, 169 speaks of book 1 as the first of two ‘long...
(The entire section is 10235 words.)
SOURCE: Cooke, Elizabeth F. “The Moral and Intellectual Development of the Philosopher in Plato's Republic.” Ancient Philosophy 19, no. 1 (spring 1999): 37-44.
[In the following essay, Cooke comments on Plato's view of the role of philosophy in everyday life, stating that for Plato, philosophy is not an abstract concept, but one that draws from all aspects of life, including the spiritual, moral, and intellectual.]
The metaphysical knowledge required for the philosopher is often seen as merely abstract and theoretical, though the philosophers share in the same early character education as that of the spirited auxiliaries. This is not a mere oversight by...
(The entire section is 3589 words.)
SOURCE: Morrison, Donald. “The Happiness of the City and the Happiness of the Individual in Plato's Republic.” Ancient Philosophy 21, no. 1 (spring 2001): 1-24.
[In the following essay, Morrison reflects on the relationship between the happiness of individuals and the happiness of the city as it is outlined in the Republic.]
Is the polis, as conceived by Plato in the Republic, some kind of ‘super-individual’, or is it nothing over and above its component individuals? Is the happiness of the polis a separate and transcendent value, for which the happiness of its citizens might be sacrificed, or not? Answers to these questions are often grouped into...
(The entire section is 12492 words.)
SOURCE: McNeill, David N. “Human Discourse, Eros, and Madness in Plato's Republic.” Review of Metaphysics 55, (December 2001): 235-68.
[In the following essay, McNeill compares three variations on the idea of eros as presented in Plato's Republic, Phaedrus and Symposium.]
In book 9 of the Republic, Socrates tells Adeimantus that the “tyrant-makers” manage to defeat the relatives of the nascent tyrant in the battle over the young man's soul by contriving “to make in him some eros, a sort of great winged drone, to be the leader of the idle desires.” This “leader of the soul,” Socrates claims,...
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Allen, R. E. “The Speech of Glaucon in Plato's Republic.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 25, no. 1 (January 1987): 3-11.
Outline of Plato's position on the “good” as it is explicated via the dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates in the second book of the Republic.
Kahn, Charles H. “Plato's Theory of Desire.” The Review of Metaphysics 41, no.1, issue no. 161 (September 1987): 77-103.
Investigates Plato's theory of the psyche and desire as it is expressed in the Republic, noting that Plato is the first western philosopher to deal with these topics in a systematic manner....
(The entire section is 379 words.)