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...
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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 far as individuals are concerned, one’s membership in a particular class is determined, not simply by one’s birth, but rather by one’s talents, and by how one takes to education. Therefore, someone born into the lowest class could end up as a Guardian, whereas, conversely, the child of a Guardian could be demoted to the lowest class for failure to display the characteristics expected of a future Guardian.
Education plays a strategically important role in the ideal state, for on it depends the citizenry’s being rightly oriented to the Good. The chief task of education is to produce Guardians, philosopher-kings. In the same way that there can be no real difference, in a Guardian, between intellectual and moral excellence, so also in the education that is dedicated to producing Guardians, equal emphasis must be given to both intellectul and moral formation. Plato’s theory of education, as found in the Republic, never separates these two. Children must not be exposed to art forms such as epic poetry and the drama, or to certain types of music. These would have a corrupting effect upon them. Art is corrupting to the extent that it provides children with a distorted view of reality. In the ideal state being contemplated, girls are provided with the same education as boys, and the reason for this is the belief that the only difference between men and women is purely physical. Women are eligible for all the positions that are open to men, including Auxiliary and Guardian.
The society that Plato delineates in the Republic is ideal. Yet it would be incorrect to consider it a utopia, if doing so implies the understanding that Plato was committed to the possibility of establishing upon this earth a perfect social organization that would completely fulfill the human person. As is evident in the last book of the Republic, which includes a stirring “last judgment” scene, Plato believed that human beings could not completely fulfill themselves in this life. That is something that comes only after death, with the vision of the Good.