The Republic by Plato.

For most of 2017 I've been struggling my way through the 4th Century B.C. for my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. My aim, for this year, was to finish the 4th Century B.C. - 2nd Century B.C. section, and my fear was the philosophies and histories of the 4th Century B.C., comprising mainly of Aristotle, Plato, and Xenophon. With Plato's Republic, I've now finished that part and am looking forward to starting the 1st Century B.C. next year!

Now, Plato. Given that when I've been reviewing these books I've made it clear that I find philosophies very difficult, so it's no surprise when I begin by saying that Plato's Republic (Πολιτεία) is very difficult. Writing about it is even harder, but I'll do my best.

It was written around 380 B.C., and it is not only one of his most famous works but also one of the most influential books ever written. It's divided into ten books, which I'll try to summarise in the briefest possible way:

Book I

Plato begins by setting the scene: Socrates is visiting Piraeus with Glaucon and they meet Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. The question “What is justice?” is asked. Each offers their definition, speaking, for example, on honesty, legality, even retribution, and each definition is refuted. Then the value of justice is questioned, though it is concluded that to be injustice is to be unwise, and wisdom is a virtue.

Book II

The discussion then turns to desire, and why we may desire things: 1) for their consequences (medicine, for example), 2) for the happiness it may bring, and 3) a combination of these two things. Justice belongs to the third category. It rises, they argue, from fear of injustice, which protects not only the victims of injustice but also the would-be perpetrators. Even so, Glaucon says (although not in these words) that crime does pay, however Adeimantus disagrees, arguing practising justice has rewards in not only this life but the next. It is not merely a social contract as others have argued.

Book III

The idea of heroes is then discussed, and how heroes in stories promotes a fearlessness of death. Art, it is argued, should promote virtue. On the subject of education, Socrates speaks of the correct love between men and boys, and how it should not be erotic, but pure. As Aristotle argued in Politics, education should be carefully balanced between art and humanities, and physical education. Medical training should be geared towards that which is curable: those who are incurable should be allowed to die naturally without intervention. Wisdom, courage, justice and temperance must be taught to both sexes, and all is to be shared: prohibition of private property, for example is an ideal. For this and other reasons I can't say I was wildly enthusiastic about Book III.

Book IV

Moving on, the group discuss rulership and the happiness of the state. They talk of a moneyless state, which would prevent excess of both wealth and poverty, the size of the state (arguing that it should not be allowed to be too big), and more on shared education. The four most important virtues of the city is, again, wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, and the four are essential to each other. Each person will have their role within this state and be able and allowed to fulfil it: this is justice, and it is reflected in the soul

Book V

The 'communist' theme is continued in the first part of Book V with Socrates arguing that children and indeed spouses should be shared. Furthermore women should be allowed to take on the same roles as men and enjoy the same education (though Plato still believed in the superiority of the male gender). The discussion then increases in its authoritarian theme: sex may only take place at certain times of the year during designated festivals and if it does not the possible offspring should be killed. Furthermore children need not and should not know their biological parents. Finally, Socrates envisages a philosopher-king.

Book VI

This idea of a 'philosopher-king' is continued with the virtues, or lack of in some of the group's opinion, of philosophers discussed. Socrates speaks of the "true" philosopher-king (this idea of the "true" is another thing that slightly alarmed me reading The Republic) as one who embodies the ideals of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, and who has been properly educated.

Book VII

Socrates expands on analogies that he began in Book VI, known as Analogies of the Sun and of the Divided Line in the Allegory of the Cave, along the lines that one must be free of trappings to emerge into the light of truth and wisdom, leaving the cave and coming into the light. They talk further on education, moral, intellectual and physical, then later military training and so on, all of which would essentially lead one from the darkness of the cave.

Book VIII

From justice to injustice: Socrates speaks of four unjust constitutions: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Like Aristotle, Plato points out that democracy can be exploited by demagogues. He then writes on how each of these can lead to a lack of virtue.

Book XI

In this Socrates speaks in detail on the tyrannical man who is ruled by lawless desires and born of a pleasure-loving democratic man, himself born of an oligarchic. The excess, Socrates warns, eventually leads to ruin and he describes essentially a "boom and bust" economy. The aristocrat is his exact opposite. They eventually conclude that to live a just life is to live a happy life. The unjust are eventually deeply unhappy.

Book X

In the final book Plato, or Socrates rather, concludes having defined justice and shown its worth. Surprisingly, he seeks to ban poets from his republic for being corrupting and false. He then proves the immortality of the soul by arguing that even corruption and vice, though it may damage the soul, does not completely kill it. He concludes by describing the Myth of Er and how Er saw men rewarded or punished for their virtue or lack of, and how the philosophical made just choices.

And that is my brief sweeping summary of The Republic, which I found exceptionally difficult. There were some odd good moments in it, educating both genders equally for example or the dangers of demagogues, but for much of it this 'Republic' reminded me more of Airstrip One than Utopia. I couldn't help but feel, having also read Aristotle's Politics, that we should just leave these two alone when it comes to envisaging a good and happy state and government. Some elements of these works were, frankly, quite shocking and distasteful to the modern reader. Even so, it's hugely influential and as I say did have some good in it as well as being a very good discussion on the concept of justice (which was, after all, mainly what it was about), so I'm glad to have read it.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed your review of this book. It does sound very difficult. I doubt it will ever come before me as there are just too many other books I want to read first but it does seem to be such an important work.

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    1. It was indeed very difficult. Took a lot of effort! It was worth it I think, but I'm not actually sure if I'll read it again. When I finished it I did think I more than likely would but now I'm not so sure... :)

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  2. i plowed thru this in my teens and immediately forgot all about it... so i know what an effort it must have taken: big congratulations... i believe at the time that i thought Plato was crazy; maybe i still think that... sensational picture, by the way; very nice...

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    1. After reading this I do think Plato's a bit mad!

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  3. Well, good for you! You started way after me and surpassed me by a mile! One of my new year's resolutions will be to take on less. In any case, I can't wait to get to the shocking parts. Congratulations on finishing!

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    1. Thank you! I've been dreading it since I started my Greek and Roman reading in 2015! Right now in the middle of tackling another read I've been dreading - The City of God. Afraid it's not going too well - I'm reading it, but I'm not taking much in... Trying, though! :)

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  4. Excellent review! I know this book is difficult to summarize but I think you did an awesome job! I know there are parts that seems downright offensive, but overall I believe this book always forces me to think, and sometime think so much, that my head hurts!But still in every read, I have found something to appreciate or ruminate over! But this is a difficult book and I think, you deserve a big congratulations for finishing and then articulating about the books so well!!

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    1. Thank you very much! It was quite an effort I must admit. Worth it, but my goodness it was tough :)

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