The Republic is among the longest of Plato’s dialogues, and it is very probably his best-known and most popular work. There are only seven characters in the dialogue, despite its length, and three of these, Socrates, Glaucon, and Adimantus, carry the conversation. Like most of Plato’s dialogues, this one is characterized by a dominant theme, which, in the case of the Republic, is justice, or, more broadly, morality. What is the essence of morality? To state the problem with greater precision, what is the nature of a truly good human being, one whose life points toward a genuine fulfillment of one’s humanity? The rich and multifaceted discussion found in the ten books of the Republic is an attempt to answer that question.
Early in the discussion, it is decided to seek the nature of morality on the level of society as a whole rather than on the level of the individual. Because everything on the level of society is on a larger scale, it would therefore be more easily observed and studied. This approach reveals an interesting feature of Plato’s thought, his conviction that whatever is discoverable about the nature of morality on the level of society will, with appropriate qualifications, be applicable on the level of the individual. He did not believe that there were two separate types of morality, one for individuals and one for societies as a whole. Plato taught that there is but a single morality, and that it applies with equal force to both individuals and societies.
After providing a brief sketch of how the organized state first came into existence, Socrates and his two fellow philosophers carefully develop a detailed picture of what they conceive to be the ideal state. Such a state would comprise three major divisions, or classes. It would be governed by a very special type of aristocracy, composed of people possessed of both profound philosophical knowledge and moral righteousness. An individual in this class would have gained his philosophical prowess through long years of difficult study; his moral superiority would result from having experientially arrived at a certain degree of understanding of absolute goodness. This absolute goodness, which is the same as the absolute beauty found in the Symposium, and to which Plato refers simply as the Good, is the supreme principle of all reality. It is the foundation and source of morality, not only for the philosopher-kings, the members of the Guardian class, but also for all members of the ideal state, if indirectly.
The second class, a considerably larger one, has the name Auxiliaries, and its principal function is to protect the state against external aggression and internal dissension. The Auxiliaries could be regarded as a combination of an army and a national police force. Although not as philosophically sophisticated as the Guardians, the Auxiliaries are closely allied to, and cooperate fully with, the leaders of the state. The Auxiliaries’ main task is to implement the enlightened directives of the Guardians. Both the Guardians and the Auxiliaries lead a rigorous, highly disciplined life. They cannot own private property, for example, nor can they marry in the conventional sense and raise a family. They sleep in dormitories and have their meals in common. The purpose behind the strict regimentation is to allow the Guardians and Auxiliaries to devote all of their attention and energies to the good of the state.
Perhaps the best way to identify the third class in Plato’s ideal state is to say that it comprises all those who are neither Guardians nor Auxiliaries. In other words, this class comprises the vast majority of the populace and would include professionals, artisans, wage laborers, and farmers. Unlike the upper two classes, the members of this class are free to marry and establish families, and they own property. Although the three classes are quite distinct, they are not isolated from one another, and there is fluid movement among the membership of each. As...
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