Philosophy. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML: The Republic is Plato's most famous work and one of the seminal texts of Western philosophy and politics. The characters in this Socratic dialogue - including Socrates himself - discuss whether the just or unjust man is happier. They are the philosopher-kings of imagined cities and they also discuss the nature of philosophy and the soul among other things..
The first thing one notices right off the bat is what a great writer Plato is. This great work of philosophy is presented as a conversation — seemingly without end! — which like other dialogues of Plato, engages the reader and draws him or her in with a surprising degree of wit and flare. We who are not philosophers per se might tend to think of philosophy as a dry and lifeless subject, but in Plato's hands, it can be quite fascinating and certainly never dull.
The Republic is not an easy place to begin with Plato because of its sheer length and the scope of ideas it covers, but with some patience it is not an entirely bad place to begin, either.
For whatever reason, reading ancient Greek literature in English translation seems to be fraught with difficulties. It may be because of the limited vocabulary available within the ancient language as compared to a polyglot language such as English with its agglomeration of words from literally everywhere. But word choice can make a huge difference in the tone and feel of the material.
For example, as mentioned above, most modern translations of the Republic are concerned with "justice" in an ideal "state," which sounds rather remote, abstract and high-minded, leaving a perception of difficulty. Robin Waterfield has tried to be more precise in his translation. The Greek word dikaiosunē is usually translated as "justice," but Waterfield says the word "refers to something which encompasses all the various virtues and is almost synonymous with 'virtue' in general." In his translation the Republic is about "morality — what it is and how it fulfils one's life as a human being." Also, instead of "state," Waterfield has substituted the word "community." In combination, the idea of morality in the community brings the whole discussion down to a more personal level. I appreciated the change and the more personal tone of the entire work.
At any rate, philosophy aside because I am singularly unqualified to utter even platitudes on the subject, I enjoyed reading Plato's Republic. It was a much different book than I was expecting. Of course, having recently read Eric Havelock's [Preface to Plato], I was reading with an agenda — namely, to see whether his assessment of the Republic was correct, and while I appreciate his perspective, I feel his agenda got in the way of presenting a complete picture.
I also came away from this reading believing that many critics and commentators attribute more dogmatism to Plato than was really intended. The notion that he, through his mouthpiece Socrates, was setting up an ideal state, a sort of communist utopia, is an overstatement. While he did conclude that in his so-called ideal state the rulers would have no personal property and that they would be philosopher kings (and by implication queens), he also admitted many times throughout the discussion that "the community we've just been founding and describing can't be accommodated anywhere in the world, and therefore it rests at the level of ideas." Thus my initial suggestion that the Republic is a thought experiment, and the ideal state or community is a notion to be thought about and discussed but never to be realized. Something called "human nature" will prevent anything like it ever working in the real world. The ideal was created as a paradigm within which to explore the subject of whether a just or moral person is happier than an injust or immoral person, and incidentally, to try to define the nature of goodness. Socrates was only able to come up with various allegories to illustrate his points about what constitutes goodness, but he never delivered a definition as such.
But that is in the nature of Plato's dialogues, which consist of many questions and few definitive answers. The pleasure in reading comes from the plethora of ideas that arise out of the conversations between Socrates and his interlocutors.
In addition to the political level, Plato constantly reminds us that "We should bear in mind the equivalence of the community and the individual," and that a just society reflects the just or moral character of the individuals of whom it consists. What works at the community level he also tries to apply to the individual, not always successfully. The success of the community is dependent upon the education of its people and adherence to its customs. Education as discussed in the Republic applies to the rulers or "guardians," but in an open democratic society it must apply to everyone.
The Republic is not by any means a quick read, and the more time spent, the more one will get out of it. Robin Waterfield's translation in the Oxford World Classics series is excellent in addition for its introduction and extensive notes which help to guide one through the many digressions and to pinpoint the salient ideas.
(1) The actual flow of the argument in The Republic
(2) The historical context in which Plato wrote The Republic
Firstly, The Republic is a "city in speech" as Socrates calls it, not an actual political model, and the reason
Secondly, I would suggest that people who are outraged are engaging in arrogant de-historicism. Plato was writing after the disastrous wars between the Athenians and the Spartans, which Athens lost, and tyranny ensued, and the early attempts at democracy put his mentor Socrates to death. Plato hadn't seen liberal democracy as we know it, and he wasn't writing for a modern state. Plato saw what civil unrest can lead to, and he hated it.
But most importantly, The Republic is more a work of epistemology and metaphysics than one of social engineering, it's about being vs. becoming, things "in themselves" and Plato's theory of forms (or ideas). If you read it like a work of political philosophy and a blue-print for a state, then I think you've misunderstood it.
For someone interested in philosophy; this is essential reading. Plato outlines ALL the questions which have plagued philosophers since then, and many of them aren't resolved. One can only marvel at the aristry and craft with which Plato has crafted this magnificent, extraordinary piece of work.
Anyway, really I wanted to review the edition. It's great. Waterfield jettisons the random 'book' divisions of the Republic. Ideally, I guess, you'd just publish the thing as one long rant, but in the interests of user-friendliness Waterfield's split the text up into chapters, each one of which more or less features one argument. This makes the flow of the dialogue much easier to follow. He also breaks up steps in the arguments of the longer chapters, so you don't get lost even if you're kind of half-arsing your reading. For that alone, he'd get four stars, but his notes are *brilliant* too. Philosophically engaged, historically aware, never willing to play cheerleader to Socrates' more obvious gaffs, but willing to go out on a limb to defend something that initially seems implausible. Waterfield's guiding thread is that you really should read the book as what it says it is: an investigation into morality (often translated as justice elsewhere), which proceeds by way of analogy. The political stuff is secondary; the real goal is to defend the idea that the moral person is happier and better in the long run. I say all this despite disagreeing with Waterfield's argument that the forms aren't metaphysical. I know why philosophers say that; the idea that Plato thought there were real Divine Bedframes floating somewhere in the fifth dimension is ridiculous. But he pretty clearly thought that ridiculous thing. Not because he was an idiot, though: he wanted to anchor truth is something which actually existed, but acknowledged the real lack of truthiness/justice/morality in the world as he found it. Good for him.
It is both intriguing and somewhat dissapointing to find exact phrases later seen in the Wealth of Nations and perhaps the Federalist. For example, these early thinkers already proclaim "when there is an income-tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of the income." (p. 306, Book I) Later, they also convey a perfect understanding of the division of labor within a city. Then again, the quotations from Homer, such as "And the soul, with shrilling cry, passed like smoke beneath the earth." (Illiad) were borrowed by them and quite welcome (and referenced). Within all of the hypothesizing, a basic observation is made about the motivation of rich men vs. laborers. When ill, the carpenter sees a doctor. If advised that he must rest in order to recover, the carpenter does not because he cannot and so goes on and either lives or dies. Either way, he fulfills his purpose and does not waste away with a lingering death. Alternatively, the rich man has no occupation and can waste away. The other most memorable discussion concerned the progress through and traits of the major systems of government (dictatorship, democracy, etc.) I found the Republic to be an interesting discourse, containing some fascinating major points (about the soul, the motivations of men, and the organization of states) as well as some interesting sidetrips into other matters.
During a thorough 60+ page introduction to Plato’s text, Waterfield most significant translation is “morality” instead of “justice” for the Greek word dikaiosune because of the definition provided by Aristotle of the word. With this word decision and with her discussion of Plato’s complete disregard to politics, Republic turns from a work of political theory into one of philosophy concerned about the improvement of an individual’s life and not that of a Greek polis. Using the cultural terms and norms of his time, Plato sets out to express his belief that individuals can improve and better themselves outside the communal structure of Greek life. This was a radical notion given that individualism—especially as we know it today—was not a part of respectable Greek political life, the individual’s life was bound up in the community and if they went off on their own it was dangerous to the civic order and with the relationship with the gods (the charge against Socrates).
While Plato’s overall thesis is thought-provoking, some of his supporting arguments via mathematics and his lack of details about how to improve one’s morality and thus goodness are detriments to Republic’s overall quality. Although later individuals, in particular early Christian fathers, would supplement Plato with their own supporting evidence for those in the 21st Century these elements can be stumbling blocks. Even though Waterfield’s translation provided to be very readable and her notes beyond satisfactory, the constant flipping to the back of the book to read them and provide myself with the context to what she was saying while at the particular place in the text was somewhat unhelpful but footnotes at the bottom of the pages might have been worse.
Republic is one of the most significant pieces of Western literature and whether you approve of Waterfield’s translation or not, it is a very good was to look at a piece of text long-thought to mean one thing and see it as something completely different.
One thing I'm not sure I like is that Plato writes as Socrates, but we'll never know if Socrates would've agreed with all these things. What if Plato is just putting things in Socrates's mouth? But I guess that's what you get when you don't write anything down (geez, Socrates).
This edition of the famous Jowett translation
He shared his
The other major issue up for debate is justice. Each man comes to the table with a slightly different view of how to define justice. Is justice helping your friends? Is it unjust to injure your enemies? These questions make the Athenians go round and round as they each add their opinions to the mix. This book also includes the famous allegory of the cave, which is discussed in every Philosophy 101 class.
BOTTOM LINE: The arguments aren’t flawless, but it’s the style of arguing that makes this such a compelling read. I enjoyed every second of it and would highly recommend finding an audio version if you can.
“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
“They agreed to avoid doing injustice in order to avoid suffering it. This is the origin of laws and contracts.”
“Don’t you think this is why education in the arts is so powerful? Rhythm and harmony find their way to the inner part of the soul and establish themselves there, bringing grace to the well-educated.”
The New Lifetime Reading Plan: Number 12
Guess I'm not a real fan of the Socratic dialogue. Seems like there could be more logic branches that the ones chosen. Anyhow, did appreciate three key concepts: 1) the uniqueness of the individual and the how that shapes ones vocation; 2) the cave