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The Republic (Plato)

    The Republic is an influential dialogue by Plato. It is also one of his longest Socratic dialogues, subdivided in 10 books afterwards. The Republic mainly is about political philosophy and ethics. It also contains the famous allegory of the cave, with which Plato clarifies his theory of forms. Further he pictures an utopia, with which he explains his political ideals.

    Setting and dramatis personae

    The characters appearing in The Republic are:
    • Socrates
    • Glaucon
    • Adeimantus
    • Minor roles for Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus and his friend Cleitophon
    • Silent roles for Lysias and Euthydemus (both sons of Cephalus), the brothers of Polemarchus and Charmantides.

    The scene of the dialogue is the house of Cephalus at Piraeus. The whole dialogue is narrated by Socrates the day after it actually took place, to, amongst others, Timaeus, Hermocrates and Critias.


    The question with which The Republic sets out is to define justice. Given the difficulty of this task, Socrates and his interlocutors are led into a discussion of justice in the state, which they see as the same as justice in the person, but on a grander (and therefore easier to discuss) scale. Because of this, some critics (such as Julia Annas) interpret Plato's ideal of a just state as an allegory for the ideal of the just person.

    Theory of universals

    The Republic contains Plato's Allegory of the cave with which he explains his concept of The Forms as an answer to the problem of universals.

    The ideal form of government

    The forms of government discussed in The Republic bear little resemblance to the type of state that in more recent times is indicated as republic. Plato rejected democracy and used The Republic to criticize it for its alleged flaws, such as susceptibility to demagogues, rule by unfit "barbarians" etc. The concepts of democracy and of Utopia as depicted in The Republic are tied to the city-states of ancient Greece and their relevance to modern states is questionable.
    Justice is defined as a state where everyone is to do their own work while not interfering with the work of others. This conception of justice, striking to the modern reader, is closely linked to the Greek conception of fate or necessity, such as that embodied later in Aristotle's final cause. This definition of justice leads to a social structure radically different from most previous and subsequent states.
    The ideal city as depicted in The Republic should be governed by philosopher-kings; disinterested persons who are to rule not for their personal enjoyment but for the good of the City-State. Socrates points out the human tendency to corruption by power and thus tyranny; therefore ruling should only be left to a certain class of people whose only purpose is to govern in what is deemed a just manner, and who are somehow immune to corruption. At this point, it is clear that the Platonic society is to be highly hierarchical. In addition to the ruling class of philosopher-kings, there is also to be a military class, and a lower class of the common people.
    There are a number of provisions to avoid making the people weak: among those, censorship of certain kinds of music, poetry and theatre, a rigid education system, and the abolishment of riches. These apply to all three classes, and the restrictions placed on the philosopher-kings and the warriors are much more severe than those placed on the common workers, because the rulers must be kept away from any source of corruption. In addition, being both an educator as a parent and a worker is incompatible with the definition of justice. This leads to the abandonment of the typical family, and as such no child may know his or her parents and the parents may not know their own children. The rulers assemble couples for reproduction, based on breeding criteria. Education is thereafter relegated to specialized caregivers. Thus, stable population is achieved through eugenism and social cohesion is high because familiar links are extended towards everyone in the City. Social classes are largely static although marginal permeability is allowed.


    Ancient Rome


    The English translation of the title of Plato's dialogue is derived from Cicero's De re publica, a dialogue written some three centuries later. Cicero's dialogue imitates the style of the Platonic dialogues, and treats many of the topics touched upon in Plato's Republic. Scipio Africanus, the main character of Cicero's dialogue expresses his esteem for Plato and Socrates when they are talking about the "Res publica". "Res publica" is however not an exact translation of the Greek word "politeia" that Plato used in the title of his dialogue: "politeia" is a general term indicating the various forms of government that could be used and were used in a Polis or city-state. The character Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of an ideal city rather than the nature of the Athenian democracy.


    In Antiquity Plato's works were largely acclaimed, still, some commentators had another view. Tacitus, not mentioning Plato or The Republic nominally (so his critique equally extends to Cicero's Republic and Aristotle's Politeia, to name only a few), noted the following:
    All nations and cities are ruled by the people, the nobility, or by one man. A constitution, formed by selection out of these elements, it is easy to commend but not to produce; or, if it is produced, it cannot be lasting. (Ann. IV, 33)


    In the pivotal era preceding Rome's move from its ancient multi-god religion to christianity, Augustine wrote his magnum opus
    The City of God: again, the references to Plato, Aristotle and Cicero and their visions of the ideal state were legio: Augustinus equally described a model of the "ideal city", in his case the eternal Jerusalem, using a visionary language not unlike that of the preceding philosophers.


    Thomas More, when writing his
    Utopia, used the same technique of using the portrayal of an "utopia" as the carrier of his thoughts about the ideal society - many more writers in this vein would follow.

    Open Society?


    The city portrayed in
    The Republic has struck many modern critics as unduly harsh, rigid, and unfree; indeed, as a kind of precursor to modern totalitarianism. Karl Popper is perhaps the best-known supporter of that view, which is the view generally represented in modern introductory college textbooks on political philosophy.

    Other view

    At the time when Karl Popper published this critique for the first time (
    The Open Society and its Enemies - 1945), and certainly among many political philosophers today, Plato was and is usually seen in a much more favorable light, for example by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1934 classic, Plato und die Dichter (and several other works), where the utopic city of the The Republic is seen as a heuristic utopia that should not be pursued or even be used as an orientation-point for political development. Rather, its purpose is said to be to show how things would have to be connected, and how one thing would lead to another — often with highly problematic results — if one would opt for certain principles and carry them through rigorously. This interpretation argues that large passages in Plato's writing are ironic (which, of course, an unusually high level of proficiency in ancient Greek is required to detect). In this interpretation Plato's entire oeuvre would be much less totalitarian.
    One of the most convincing arguments against this interpretation is that Plato's academy has produced a number of tyrants, despite being well-versed in Greek and having direct contact with Plato himself. Among his direct students were Klearchos, tyrant of Heraklia, Chairon, tyrant of Pellene, Eurostatos and Choriskos, tyrants of Skepsis, Hermias, tyrant of Atarneos and Assos, and Kallipos, tyrant of Syracuse. Against this, however, it can be argued, first, that the question is whether these men became "tyrants" through studying in the Academy (but rather that it was an elite student body, part of which would wind up in the seats of power, that was sent to study there), and, second, that it is by no means obvious that they were tyrants in the modern, or any totalitarian, sense.


    One could, perhaps, argue that both views, as explained above, come to a similar conclusion: whether it be by the near-to-impossibility to grasp the double meanings of the ancient Greek for modern readers, or just plainly because Plato tries to steer towards a no-good system of government, the practical value of
    The Republic seems quasi nihil as guidelines for real-life good governance – unless as a set of examples of what should be avoided. Plato scholars, on the other hand, see it as their task to provide the background knowledge that is needed to enable a fair understanding of what was meant by the author of The Republic. Then the uniqueness of The Republic shows up in the way it clarifies genuine connections of political causes and effects in real life, precisely by providing them within a heuristically utopian context.

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