(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)